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Tchaikovksy’s Manfred - or what could happen when you put a paranoid in a laboratory.
February 29, 2016

It is my habit to write myself the program article for the main piece in my concerts, I find it very important to communicate to the public some extra-musical arguments and not only the obvious biographical notes, so to get it over with, lets just put the biographical note as soon as possible - Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a gay Russian.

With Tchaikovsky’s Manfred symphony I must admit, I am having a hard time. This symphony is an extreme and particular animal, both generally speaking or particularly in Tchaikovsky’s creative world. Lets begin with the obvious, Manfred’s myth: the walking myth, searching without (or with) finding, a journey as a philosophical entity. From Odysseus to
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the human journey has fascinated all brains and creative minds. In our case, Tchaikovsky is confronted with this argument thank to his friend and impresario Balakirev who actually first gave this idea to Berlioz and after his refusal, Balakirev approached Tchaikovsky which accepted the challenge. In most of his symphonic music, Tchaikovsky is not particularly a great revolutionary composer, he is tough one of the most honest ones. What make him so honest? The question could be reversed, what make the revolutionists a bit dishonest? In each revolution there must e a glance of narcissism or manipulative character, whether Tchaikovsky’s revolution is in his honesty. Going back to Manfred, which might be the most experimental piece by Tchaikovksky, one finds some hints of dishonesty (which are admirable). Am I saying that he composed a dishonest piece? No, he did though go on a very thin line, feeling a revolutionary or “playing with the grownups” he must have felt the price one has to pay being part of a revolution. Before the revolution, we must admit that this piece contains a huge amount of pure Tchaikovsky music: Russian melodies beautifully orchestrated together with the common “Russian/Militaristic” grand fanfares so loved by us all. But deep under, almost invisible, one can find the experimental Tcahikovsky and his complexed sensations towards it. As any scientist knows, experiments are fascinating because you can never know what you are going to find, or what the final result be, but exactly this could also be frightening: sometimes the results are not what we hoped, or worse, the results can even be mortal or immoral. In this symphony, and I am speaking from a very personal point of view, I have the feeling in some moments, that the great composer sabotaged his own experiment in order to avoid frightening results - and this is exactly what I think he is deeply trying to tell us: leaders can be afraid. Manfred, is a hero, he goes to his journey and as Odysseus he is a great symbol, but did he want to become one? Aren’t we a bit fast when making someone a hero?

I would like to recapitulate here: What I am actually trying to say is that by creating a very doubtful experimental piece, Tchaikovsky actually creates a very human and complex figure of Manfred. Instead of going to the obvious “hero” he paints a different hero, or even an anti-hero if you would like. I find it extremely fascinating, the way he manages that musically. One must feel that this symphony is very like the others, but different. Like the others but with less traces to his own musical past or future. Is that also something he is telling us about Manfred? Does he refer to the journey as an artificial process of development? By using his “classic” motives (as the first movement first theme melody or the big dance-fuge of the last one) he hides very well his intentions, but any listener feels that something is rotten here, it is the same old building we all know only this time the ground under it is very different.

I love very much this piece because it is one of the few, really few pieces of art that actually are afraid (on confront of pieces that deal with fear as a subject), It is not doubt, it is actual fear. I admire his honesty of fearing the dishonesty he experienced writing this piece. This is the most imaginary, innovative, dreamy pieces by Tchaikovsky. One must admit it is interesting that a piece about a very famous hero, is full of fear. Tchaikovsky does not want to go on his journey, he is afraid of the results, he must have known already that his destiny is starting to make his appearances. Artists at the time did not tend to deal with fear so much (not believing up to the last moment that they will also die..) , especially romantic artists, and what Tchaikovsky is doing here is unique and special, he puts on the table the exact thing we all afraid of: the unknown.

I would like to speak about two of the many musical ideas or moments that I think represent my ideas best. The first movement begins with this melancholic and dense melody played by all strings in unison, this is to become in a way the leitmotif of this symphony. He does not variate with this motif, he is just going to repeat it again in the end of the piece, almost as trying to tell us: the journey ends exactly where it started, with fear, with doubt. In his fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky also repeats in the end the first movement’s motif, only this time it is orchestrated in a major scale as a big fanfare: as a development of the introduction’s motif in E minor. In Manfred it is a completely different story, while development must be part of life it is something that eventually precisely repeats itself cannot bear good news in it. Something with this repetition really breaks my heart, as Jack Nicholson says in a movie: “what if this is as good as it gets? “

The second important moment appears on the very last bars, on the last three minutes of the piece. A new instrument is presented: the organ. One must ask himself why did Tchaikovsky needed to present a new instrument right on the last bars of the piece, and why an organ? About the symbolic ideas behind the organ sound I will not expand too much as those are very obvious, but the fact he did feel the need for a new sound is actually fascinating. Fifty minutes of journey, struggle, fairy tales, orgies, water fountains, all expressed in a highly creative orchestration using all the possible combinations that the orchestra can give are suddenly interrupted by this new and very specific sound of the organ. Is this the surprise he was so afraid of? Is this the unknown result of the experiment? Where does the journey ends, with the repetition of the melody from first movement (as saying destiny cannot be changed) or actually the journey ends with this great organ moment, almost as saying: fear is not an agenda.