Live from London, it's Mozart and Tchaikovsky

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, I was winding down a week-long trip to London, and on my very last night, I decided to take myself to see the London Symphony Orchestra. The program was as follows: Mozart’s Violin Concerto №1 in B-flat major K207 and Violin Concerto №4 in D major K218, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I had so much fun and drank too much wine at the intermission (“the interval”).

First thing, of course, obviously, is that if you are lucky enough to live in a city with a symphony orchestra, you should go! Even if you aren’t fully familiar with what’s on the program. I was really only familiar with the Tchaikovsky, in this case, but it’s a good way to hear new pieces you wouldn’t necessarily seek out on your own. If you research your local symphony orchestra, often you can get cheaper seats with obstructed views or far back or something. This isn’t… great? But while seeing the symphony in motion is wonderful and good — being able to hear classical music live is a very special treat.

It’s likely you’ve noticed I haven’t gotten to Mozart yet in this column, in part because there’s just so much to get to and in part because he’s a tricky person to cover. I mean, we’ve all seen Amadeus by now, right? Mozart was a teen superstar back in his day. For example, he wrote his Violin Concerto №1 when he was 17. THIS IS SOME TEEN MUSIC IF I EVER HEARD IT.

I quite like this recording by the Prague Chamber Orchestra from 1991 that has both concertos in it. The Violin Concerto №1, my London Symphony Orchestra program tells me, is somewhat formal and straightforward. I certainly don’t disagree with that. While I like Mozart as much as the next person with ears, even in his less formal works, there’s a kind of mechanical nature to everything. Still, though: it’s upbeat and cheerful. When you listen to Mozart, it’s impossible not to feel very instantly transported to some 18th-century manor, traversing a garden.

In the Violin Concerto №4, Mozart is clearly coming into his own. I mean, he was 19 when this one was completed so, he was like… a hot teen? Or something close to it. The final movement of the Violin Concerto №4 is a “Rondo,” and this third movement is one of the most popular ones of all time. A typical rondo is formed up of a principal melody and then interrupting episodes or alternative melodies. There are two main ones here in the Violin Concerto №4. It’s almost like whenever you get comfortable with one melody, Mozart switches it up on you like a big prank, which, you know, is very late teen of him.

And then there was the Tchaikovsky… Since last time, I have so much more to say.

Tchaikovsky Is The King Of Melody

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony doesn’t have quite as rigid of a formal melody as the Fifth Symphony does but it’s a wide-reaching, colorful, and surprisingly deep piece of music. Please enjoy this 1989 recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing it. It’s very likely that this particular symphony feels more like a complete emotional piece of work because it was composed during one of the more tumultuous points of his life. I want to mention here that all of my Tchaikovsky information and anecdotes come from this Anthony Holden biography of Tchaikovsky that I am currently reading. It’s very good and I would recommend it and probably won’t stop talking about it for years.

Tchaikovsky: A Biography

It is now (and was then) widely known that Tchaikovsky was gay. The year he started working on this symphony, however, he married a woman named Antonina Miliukova because… she wrote him a fan letter? That’s how they met, at least. Tchaikovsky was desperate to get rumors of his homosexuality out of the streets and figured the best way to do this was to marry a self-proclaimed fan, but this backfired for multiple reasons. First and foremost, he hated being married to a woman! Tchaikovsky wasn’t attracted to her and couldn’t stand her and had a bad time all the time. Second, he later found out she didn’t know… any of his music…? Look, one time I went to a Muse concert with a slightly cooler high school friend and just pretended to know all the words. YOU GOTTA FAKE THAT KIND OF STUFF. Tchaikovsky wound up getting out of his marriage in less than six months, but the whole thing was stressful and exhausting and sent him more or less on the run through Europe to escape all sorts of rumors about him.

It’s this stress, I believe, that fuels the first two movements of the Fourth Symphony. Both the “Andante sostenuto” (meaning “sustained slowness”… yikes) and the “Andantino in modo di canzona” (meaning something close to “slow but like a song”) have these resigned, mourning tones to them. They’re laments. They sound like these overarching pangs of grief and guilt that Tchaikovsky must have felt for throwing his life in such disarray that year.

Coinciding with his failed marriage, however, was a very interesting, and quite frankly, straight-up fucking weird, relationship with an older widow named Nadezhda von Meck, who became Tchaikovsky’s main patron and best friend and significant pen pal for several years. The Fourth Symphony is dedicated to her; in fact, it says: “Dedicated to my best friend.” Which is sweet, mostly, although again: there was much strangeness between them. She was an older widow and very much in love with the idea of Tchaikovsky, but also knew herself well enough to never ever meet him (please take notice if you, like me, have gone through some failed Twitter crushes).

Tchaikovsky, too, was uninterested in meeting von Meck, namely because he didn’t want another woman who was a big fan to lure him into anything, so the two kept their distance. Except, sometimes not? Very often, von Meck would invite Tchaikovsky to her estate to write for a while, where he did a fair amount of work on this symphony. She would then create detailed schedules and drop it off at his door every morning so he knew where not to go so they wouldn’t ever see each other. They did shit like this FOR YEARS. They saw each other ONCE on ACCIDENT and Tchaikovsky said it was the most EMBARRASSING moment of his WHOLE LIFE which I DOUBT but STILL.

The last two movements of the Fourth Symphony are particular favorites of mine. The “Scherzo” has this really fun pizzicato throughout; it gives the whole thing a very playful feel. It’s drastically different than the first two movements, as if Tchaikovsky was finally pulling himself out of the funk he had gotten himself into in his No Good Very Bad 1877. I mean, you listen to the 2:20 mark and tell me that isn’t jovial as shit.

And then! The final movement, the “Allegro con fuoco,” (quickly! With fire!) is its own grandiose piece of music. Here’s a true thing: I listened to this movement and thought, “hm… this is very familiar, and soundsexactly like Dario Marianelli’s very good score for the 2012 film Anna Karenina.” For what it’s worth, I think this is one of the best scores of all time, but it does use this “Allegro con fuoco” pretty frequently throughout.

BUT THEN I learned that it was Tchaikovsky himself who was inspired by Tolstoy back in the 18th century, and this particular movement has been used to score multiple adaptations of the novel. Good God!!!

(The other anecdote I have about Tchaikovsky and writers is that he met Dostoevsky once and said he spent the whole evening “talking of complete rubbish, as literary men do about music.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

This is giving a lot of weight, I know, to both Mozart and Tchaikovsky, but it’s the final Classical Music Hour of the year. Hopefully this gives you plenty to listen to over the holidays on top, of course, of the requisite Nutcracker ballet. Until 2017!

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.