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The final chapter is reserved for Tchaikovsky's last symphony, his sixth. The composer conducted the first performance, which was not well received at first. Only after Tchaikovsky died, which happened just a few days later, was the piece hailed as a great work. The first movement of the symphony opens with a standard 'death theme'. Felsenfeld writes: 'A bass line, which creeps downward in what is called a descending chromatic, is a sort of classical music in-joke, a clear and incontestable symbol of death, to which Tchaikovsky's audience would have been privy' (page 97). Countering this is a 'life' theme which takes over: 'We can almost hear the composer, phoenix-like, picking himself up at 4:43, dusting himself off, trying to hold on with the idea that good will prevail. To depict this, he invents one of his most soaring, humid themes -- 'life' -- the foil to death' (page 99). But in the end, the last movement, another descending chromatic passage, indicating death, emerges, and this time it is victorious.

This book has just the right amount of historical and biographical context to give the reader basic understanding of how the compositions came into being. I find the analysis enjoyable to read, although it is extremely detailed -- every move and change in the music is explained, and the pieces play out like a baseball game with a thorough sports broadcaster. If presented live, this book would have been an exciting show. I would have liked to have seen some of Tchaikovsky's lesser known piano works included, but even the author indicated that the book was only a fraction of what it needed to be. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to see the music of Tchaikovsky explained with a fervor to match. Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer and music writer in New York City.

Copyright © 14 August 2007 Anna L Franco, New York City, USA


Unlocking the Masters Series
Tchaikovsky - A Listener's Guide

Daniel Felsenfeld

Amadeus Press, 2006
ISBN13 9-781574-671346
ISBN10 1-57467-134-0
118 pages, paperback
Includes two full-length Naxos CDs


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