The Triumphant Escapism

Now it has changed: Young generation of Chinese talk about Shostakovitch, Boulez, or John Adams, but 50 years ago, the only officially approved western music in China was of Russian School. Less rhetoric than German, less dandy than French, Russian music is one of the kind that my father’s generation felt and loved.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Mariss Jansons, on last Friday night, brought a night of Tchaikovsky that has surpassed almost any experience that I had with the composer (with the exception of Manfred Honeck conducting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Symphony No. 5 two years ago).

I remembered the first listening experience of Nutcracker  Suite in my childhood: the magic sweetness of celesta (which I once played a toy model version for fun )and the endless happiness from the Waltz of the Flowers. Then for a long time, I could not accept his last symphony: At his most beautiful melodic moment, Tchaikovsky barbarically cut off the vivacity or soulfulness, with ruthless harsh blare. It is not the cut itself that hurts, it is the fact that the cut is brutally on the most tender skin that sounded alien and scary to me.

Symphony No. 4 has a different ending. Even though the fate motif is repeated again in the end of the last movement, it didn’t bring the kind of wholeness intrinsic in a cyclic form that was popular of his times. After all, triumph has been claimed, who cares about the fate when in bliss?

But the journey sets off differently. Tchaikovsky, in his own words, programed the first movement  with the comments that “all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness …No haven exists … Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths”. His fate motif is of Oedipus quality, with this being “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness”.

And the struggle comes along with the main melody being tossed around with candenlescent colors. Listening to Tchaikovsky, for me, is to listen to the unsolvable dichotomy that sooner or later would clash like a wreck. On the one hand, there is the melancholy soulful searching of beauty and peace, a pinkish wishlist from a soft mind. On the other hand, the cruel coloristic tearing bounded with the iron Russian-barbaro is what is reflected or would be encountered in reality.

In the story of Oedipus, though the tragedy is inescapable, there permeates the uplifting morality and the personal dignity that is glorified by the unwavering efforts of challenging the fate and oracle. The first movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 has the same degree of dignity that is worth fighting between personal experience & preference and societal convention. Yet soon, the symphony went to a different direction: a Victorian nicety. The third movement, with a delicate string pizzicato and rustic trio of wood and brass section, moves away from the bleak frozen land to the Austrian countryside. And the following fourth movement brings the happy ending before the repeated fate motif. It makes the excruciating efforts of the first two movements a contrived theatrical drama, like twists and turns in the Bollywood movies that inevitably leads to the bright ending.

Mahler, whose music is  of more condensed extremities in dichotomy, never yields to simplification and nicety. The personal strife, and the corresponding moods, up and down, would not be solved or relieved predictably. (Even so, Richard Strauss once commented that the famous Adagio in his Symphony 5 was inappropriate.) For him, the ending may not be as important as the procedure of personal fighting against all contradicts and controversies in the world. And instead of tearing through the beauty with a sharp knife, he squeezed the two together: the Landler by the string ridiculed from the wood, the solemn funeral march with impersonal military drum or the dreamy Schubertarian melody with apocalyptic brass accompany: Here the dichotomy becomes the ambiguity, to favor which extremity all depends on the conductor’s hand and the listener’s mind.

I would not say that I have matured enough to understand Tchaikovsky, yet it is the same alien to the abrupt coarseness of the sixth symphony I used to hate that  now I lament in his fourth symphony. In short, life was fucked up, at least to Tchaikovsky, a sentimental gay composer who was as much afraid of failure in reception of his new works as of disclosure of his sexual orientation. The last movement can almost be interpreted as an omen to his last symphony. Here, the composer still tried to fit his role in the society abiding rules of triumph and victory: music or personal wise. Yet 15 years later, he conceded that something may not be conciliated even though with all his best hopes and fights. It was painful, doomed, yet real without any make up of nicety or simplicity. In other words, the whole symphony of No. 4 was just a scherzo of temporary triumphant escapism in the middle of Tchaikovsky’s career.

For Gustav Mahler, it took one symphony to bring such triumphant moments back to complex reality; for Tchaikovsky, it took three symphonies and 15 years to show the escape was only to the abyss.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

Leave a Reply