I now get why Brahms and Tchaikovsky didn’t mix…


It’s a dramatic shift of gears, going from Brahms to Tchaikovsky. I conducted the Brahms first symphony last fall, and I was on fire to come to a deeper understanding of this beautiful, complex work in which Brahms comes to terms with the legacies of both Beethoven and Wagner, building in mysterious ways to that sublime horn call and triumph in the finale. My students were less eager, confounded by considerable technical challenges and the difficulty to just make the piece sound. Brahms takes work. But by the time of our concerts, several students emailed me about how they had come to love the symphony and they all played it with reverence and deep commitment.

But this next semester we plunged into Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Now it was the students inflamed with excitement and passion, and I who was having a tough time! I felt less eager, even bored, having come from the heights of the Brahms to Tchaikovsky’s never-ending chain of beautiful melodies. There has none of Brahms’ irony. None of the granular journey into the molecules that build new forms in unpredictable, imaginative ways. In Brahms you have to work for a melody to return. Tchaikovsky, in contrast, is singing to you at all times. Is Tchaikovsky really more a teenage romance, I wondered, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony

I was feeling through my body why Brahms personally had no kind words for Tchaikovsky’s music (and vice-versa). It’s not that Brahms didn’t recognized Tchaikovsky’s supreme melodic gifts. But that for Brahms, a symphony was a dramatic canvas in which tunes are catalysts for deep evolution, not the main events themselves. The connective tissue around the themes and the particles of the themes themselves were more important. In Brahms (and Beethoven), the main event is the material between the themes that manifests the deep wellspring of his imagination.

But as the weeks progressed, my mind and ear did change gears. Yes, in Tchaikovsky, the theme is the “thing” itself. But there is a deep complexity to these themes, the careful working out of their bass lines, accompaniments, counter melodies, and, especially, harmonic progressions. The bridges connecting these themes may be simple, formulaic, or melodramatic in comparison, but the themes themselves hold secrets. One of those secrets is that they are wedded not just to the color of each instrument, but to their very personality! That graceful arabesque in the bassoon, the delicate staccato of the flute, the brazen fanfare of the trumpet, that mournful, morose tapering of the clarinet—they all require the performer to express a special and particular emotional quality precisely suited to their instrument, and no other in the orchestra. For Brahms, the instruments largely serve the music. They too have wonderful solos, but they largely express the emotion inherent in the tunes and textures. For Tchaikovsky, the themes serve the instruments. The depth of the funereal clarinet solo that begins his 5th symphony is not in the notes themselves, it is in the clarinet and how deep that player can take the instrument. Tchaikovsky’s music (once mastered!) serves the musicians and their instruments.

There is another related secret I’ve discovered in Tchaikovsky’s music. A good deal of its potency is not in the notes themselves, but what happens between the notes. His scores often look very simple when placed next to Brahms. But that visual look belies the enormous activity of swells and fades from one note to the next, one phrase to the next, one color to the next. Then there are those marvelous rests, some short as an intake of breath, others so long that we think the piece might be over (thanks a lot, Tchaikovsky, for that pause in the coda of the 5th symphony where everyone mistakenly claps!). He does indicate these changes in loudness, but in any recording, you realize that conductors and orchestras go way beyond these indications as they discover personal ways of expressing this music. That demand for personal involvement, I realize, is the depth in Tchaikovsky.