The Failed Strife-To-Victory Metaphor in Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony

The great innovation of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is a structural one, in its undermining of the standard symphonic formal pattern. In the nineteenth century, the form of the symphony was firmly established as expressing the concept of ad aspera ad astra – through adversity to the stars. This was usually achieved by concluding with a triumphant Finale, often in a fast tempo, and in symphonies in a minor key the major mode would triumph over the minor in the Finale. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, however, ends with a slow and tragic finale, an Adagio lamentoso, which concludes the work by signifying a tragic ‘dying away’. Timothy L Jackson describes this in his book Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Patheitique), using Saussure’s linguistic term, as a ‘diachronic transformation‘:

Essentially, I propose that, in its conceptually earlier state, the symphony conforms to normative macro-symphonic form by concluding with a March-Finale and fulfilling the per aspera ad astra redemption narrative. Then, in a diachronic transformation designed to undercut the ad astra narrative, the slow movement is shifted from an interior position and transformed into the Adagio Finale, the March thereby being converted from a triumphant Finale into the third movement.

I think we can instinctively feel this transformation, without having any knowledge of the theory. I have had first-hand evidence of this in the concert hall – during the last live performance I saw of the piece, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington in Vienna in 2004, the audience burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the third movement, i.e. after the triumphant March but before the Adagio lamentoso Finale. It’s clear that many in the audience didn’t know the symphony well, as it is strictly against concert hall etiquette to applaud between movements before the entire piece has been completed (this may sound snobbish, but it’s right – the musicians haven’t finished what they’re saying until the end). Besides, anyone familiar with the symphony would know that applause at this point in the narrative is an inappropriate response given that the work ends on a note of tragedy. However, the natural feeling for someone unfamiliar with the work is that the symphony has concluded with the third movement March, because of its overt triumphalism, and because of the unconscious awareness that we all have of the strife-to-victory paradigm as played out in the classical symphony. It feels like the proper place to end. This makes the ensuing pain of the Adagio lamentoso Finale even more powerful. As Jackson pus it, the triumph is ‘brutally undercut’ by the last movement, creating a failed strife-to-victory metaphor.

One of the interesting outcomes of this structural change is that it forces us to understand the symphony as having some kind of ‘meaning’. By confounding our expectations of a triumphant endstate, it subconsciously tells us that Tchaikovsky has something to say, or at the very least something to emote – and this is even before we learn that he let it be known that there is a sincere autobiographical ‘program’ to the symphony, although he refused to reveal the nature of that program.

Meaning in music is a thorny subject – there are those who claim that music without words can never produce any meaning whatsoever (Stravinsky and Frank Zappa fall into this camp), while many other composers and musicians talk openly about ‘expression’ and ‘meaning’ in music. Richard Strauss even went so far as to say that he could describe a tea spoon in music. I’ll leave discussion of what Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony might mean to a later post (in short, there is compelling evidence that it concerns his amorous relationship with his young nephew Bob, and the guilt and despair that instilled in him). On purely musical terms, we don’t need to know the specifics – the symphony stands on its own terms as a powerful expression of loss, death and tragedy. David Brown remarks on this in his essay ‘Russia before the Revolution’ in A Guide To The Symphony:

The Finale of the Sixth Symphony is the pain filled key to the whole work… Music of such devastating eloquence as in this Adagio lamentoso requires no commentary; the whole symphony has been permeated by fateful descending scales, and it is with a broken scalic descent into the subterranean regions in which the work had opened that this Finale, surely the most original in any nineteenth century symphony after Beethoven, finally dies to nothing.

It’s worth noting that Tchaikovsky’s 6th had an immense influence on subsequent approaches to the symphony – Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Shnittke and especially Mahler all explored the idea of a symphonic protagonist who is denied redemption. Indeed Mahler’s 9th is the apotheosis of the ‘dying away finale’ that was first expressed by Tchaikovsky in his 6th Symphony.

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