Monday, October 11, 2010

What to do about Petya?

The other day as I was driving to work, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony was on the satellite radio. I subscribed to satellite radio, quite simply, because having access to classical music twenty-four hours a day helps keep me sane. Also, the channel provides a text prompt that tells who the composer is, which I find very useful in the case of pieces with which I am not familiar.

As I listened to the symphony I was reminded of several things. First, of how much I enjoy Tchaikovsky's work, of how wonderful the melodies are and what a master of orchestration he was. I cannot think of another composer who uses instrumental colors to create sonic and emotional effects who can surpass him. Second, of what an extraordinary personality Tchaikovsky must have been. It is difficult to imagine living life with such wonderful melodies streaming continually in one's head. But beyond that, I was struck again by the puzzle which Tchaikovsky has always presented to my mind.

That he was an important composer is beyond dispute; indeed, I suppose he must be considered a great composer. And yet, to me, his music is almost entirely devoid of that spiritual dimension which I believe characterizes truly great art. With the possible exception of the Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky's music is, to my ear, purely secular; driven by emotion rather than by enlightenment. Only in his last symphony does he attain toward something like spiritual insight, and this, I think, only because the symphony is in large part a meditation on death. That he knew he was near the end of his life, that in some sense he could feel it coming, moved him, apparently, to reach for a deeper truth in his work. And though the Pathetique, as it is called, does aspire to such heights, it nonetheless remains as moving, as emotionally driven, even as excessive, as all of his other work. I consider it to be his most significant accomplishment. The Fifth Symphony, for all that it is thrilling, even bombastic, is a far less erudite work. It is vintage Tchaikovsky, filled with energy, exuberance and pathos, and in listening to it I understand (though I do not agree with) those dilettantes who maintain that Tchaikovsky's music is tasteless and even vulgar.

That Tchaikovsky was an extraordinarily gifted artist is undeniable. He wrote some of the most moving and beloved melodies in Western culture. He produced a large body of work, much of which is of a very high quality, and some of which has become a part of our cultural consciousness. And yet, he is far from the formal perfection of Bach, the intense spiritual insight of Beethoven, the intellectual and aesthetic virtuosity of Mozart, even the powerful and lyrical humanity of Brahms. Where Bach's music, to my way of thinking, reflects something like divine logic, Beethoven's, divine presence, Mozart's, divine intellect, and Brahms', divine humanity, Tchaikovsky's music reflects for the most part his own personality. That he was brilliant, intense, passionate, and sensitive to the point of delicacy is clear. That he was emotionally and sexually tormented is apparent. He was almost certainly homosexual and suffered greatly for the fact. Indeed, it may have led to his death which, some sources suggest, was a suicide ordered by the emperor of Russia to avoid scandal.

But his work, for all that, is universal, accessible, and vastly entertaining. There is nothing in his work that challenges us like, for example, the solo violin Chaconne of Bach or the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven. In another post I tried to make a distinction between art that is entertaining and that which goes beyond entertainment toward genius. Was Tchaikovsky a genius? By my definition, since his work lacks a spiritual dimension, I must say no. I cannot place him in the same category as Beethoven and Bach. Yet... does Brahms belong in that category? Does Mozart?

To my mind, Mozart was undeniably a genius, though I have never thought of him as a spiritual artist. I feel much the same way about Brahms. Yet the scope, depth and quality of their respective canons must be called genius, for its invention, creativity, brilliance, and beauty. And so, I think now that I must speak in terms of levels of genius or kinds of genius, and not of genius as an absolute. Mozart and Brahms, though to me more secular than spiritual artists, are most certainly geniuses. Yes, their work is entertaining on a very lofty level, but so is that of Beethoven and Bach. However, in that it lacks the profound spiritual insights and implications of the latter, I must make a distinction between them. I must say that Brahms and Mozart possessed a kind of genius which sprang from the deepest and highest levels of the human spirit, intellect and experience, and which translated into work that, in Mozart's case, was something like the height of intellect in art, and in Brahms, something like the breadth of humanity.

Having said this, the questions remains: What to do about Petya? I think there is a form of art which, and a kind of artist who, documents the human character more vividly and movingly than others, and to this category belongs Tchaikovsky. Where Beethoven is a spiritual artist, Tchaikovsky is a personal one, drawing on the depths and nuances of his character and translating them into art which is wonderfully entertaining because it touches us so. And it touches us precisely because it reflects so much about us as human beings. Tchaikovsky was a uniquely intense and passionate person, filled with conflict and contradictions, aspirations and disappointments, and in laying bare his uniquely sensual soul, he speaks to that in all of us which is vital and lyrical, but which would otherwise not have a voice. His work is the song of our longings, sufferings, hopes and heartbreaks.

Beethoven reaches for the soul; Mozart reaches for the mind; Tchaikovsky reaches for the heart. Each in his own way expresses and embodies the spirit of genius which, I think now, is not homogeneous, but diverse.