2015 | 16(3) | 94-114
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MUSIC AND MORALITY: Expression and Katharsis in Peter Tchaikovsky’s symphonies

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The most fascinating task of aesthetics is to detect the hidden order of arts. As a matterof fact, the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky received an enthusiastic reception becauseof their unusually strong expression and energy. So far, however, we know neitherwhy his previous symphonies had lacked such power, nor why each one of the last threeis so impressive. It seems that thanks to the psychoanalytical approach we can make itclear that the source of these qualities lies in the conflict between the composer’s homosexualpreferences and the moral norms of his time. The psychical tension between Idand Superego evoked the feeling of guilt which entailed the composer’s fight against hissusceptibility. Ultimately, the unsuccessful marriage disclosed the hopelessness of his efforts,putting the composer into a poor mental condition in which the symphony no. 4op. 36 came into existence. In a letter to his patron Mrs. von Meck Tchaikovsky describedan objective “program” of the symphony. He sketched the plan of a drama: the motif offate which “hangs over the head like the sword of Damocles”, the state of depression, andglimmers of hope… This description suits well both the sound flow of the symphony andthe course of the composer’s life. Although the next two symphonies were not describedby the composer in such manner, a lot of features analogous to the op. 36 are noticeable.Therefore, the same key can be applied to the interpretation of their dramatic contents.The first movement of each symphony begins with the introduction based on the characteristicmotif of fate which comes and goes as the music develops. The music itselfoscillates between tension and fading, only to explode in tutti with great strength andthickening texture of sounds, and with obsessive motifs. Further, the energy decreasesand the music falls down into low, dark regions. It dies away – but then again, it cheersup and achieves the greatest tension.In the biography of Tchaikovsky there is a great number of facts explaining the significantdifferences between the three symphonies. For instance, the symphony no. 5manifests temporal reconciliation with fate by the brighter mood and a particular wayof elaborating the motif of fate. On the other hand, the generally depressive mood of thesymphony no. 6 (Pathétique) reflects the deterioration of the composer’s physical and psychologicalcondition. It seems that the self-expression ceased to play the role of the catharsis– the purification of mind from bad tensions. There has been a controversy about thecause of Tchaikovsky’s death which occurred briefly after the completion of the symphonyPathétique. The well grounded hypothesis suggesting the composer’s suicide is based onthe same facts which determined the contents of the symphony. Music happens to be themirror of life and the intuition of death.
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