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Moscow. January 1868. The Great Hall of the Nobles. Hector Berlioz conducts triumphant performances of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, as well as his own Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy, the quasi-symphonic viola concerto based on Byron’s Childe Harold. Although no more than “a little white bird with pince-nez,” according to Rimsky-Korsakov who was there, the Russians took the desiccated Berlioz and his wild music to their hearts. Mily Balakirev prepared the chorus for the concerts, and at the banquet afterwards, a 27-year-old Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky gave the toast.
Around the same time, the influential critic Vladimir Stasov had pressed a fleshed out scenario for a four-movement symphony on Byron’s gloomy Manfred upon a dubious Balakirev. A depressive, Faustian magician seeking absolution for some mysterious transgression didn’t chime with the 30-year-old Russian, so that November he sent it on to Berlioz. Alas, five months later the worn out Frenchman, whose programmatic music had been endlessly misunderstood in his own country, was dead.
Portrait of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov.
Fast forward 12 years. Balakirev, suffering from the intermittent creative block that would afflict his career for decades, sent Stasov’s Manfred outline to Tchaikovsky. The younger composer initially turned it down, maintaining the subject left him cold and that anything he did would be but a pale imitation of Berlioz. However, in 1884, a trip to the Swiss Alps and a rereading of Byron’s original changed Tchaikovsky’s mind and he began to sketch what would be his fifth essay in symphonic form.
Reviews of the March 23, 1886 premiere in Moscow, were mixed. César Cui pronounced it “masterly” and Tchaikovsky himself initially considered it some of his finest music, and yet a few years later he turned against it, threatening to burn all but the first movement. So what went wrong? And why, despite the advocacy of men like Toscanini, who declared it the composer’s greatest work, does Manfred still struggle to find a place in the repertoire?
Semyon Bychkov. Photo: supplied.
“It is extremely difficult, it is very long – though not as long as a Bruckner or a Mahler symphony – and it requires a lot of rehearsal time to make it sound as its meant to be,” says Semyon Bychkov, the latest maestro to champion the work. “It is like an opera without words, and it has to be told in a coherent and dramatic way. In the end, it is not the fault of the music, but performances that somehow are not convincing that give it a bad name.”
Bychkov has loved the extensive first movement since studying it at the St Petersburg Conservatory with his professor, Ilya Musin. At the time, though, he was not so impressed by the rest. “Frankly, I was puzzled by the finale,” he declares. “I found it very difficult to come to grips with. Years went by and I never conducted the piece.”
It was his ongoing Decca Tchaikovsky project that prompted Bychkov to turn his attention back to Manfred, performing it regularly over the last seven years. In a direct line from Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini – works influenced by Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner – Bychkov senses an additional subtextual attraction between composer and subject matter. “Tchaikovsky became inflamed by the idea of the hero condemned to eternal damnation, who cannot find his place, who cannot find forgiveness and peace,” he explains.
Byron’s Manfred is an outcast, tortured by remorse for an unnamed crime against his sister Astarte, and commentators have drawn parallels with the poet’s supposed longings for his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Extrapolate further and it’s tempting to see Tchaikovsky’s own struggle with his sexuality as a trigger for the intensely personal music to be found throughout the symphony.
It’s the tonally ambiguous first movement, with its brooding Manfred theme acting as the symphony’s Berliozian idée fixe, where one senses a programme most strongly, but Bychkov is keen to flag up a difference between music that ‘contains’ a programme, and music that ‘describes’ a programme.
“When programmatic music is simply descriptive, it doesn’t touch us. But when it contains a programme revealed with the kind of fantasy and drama as Tchaikovsky does in Manfred, we needn’t think about the programme when we listen to the music. It’s not that in bar seven Manfred decides to take a rest, and here he falls in love. We know this is Astarte’s theme, and we know the mysterious relationship between them, but if we didn’t know any of that and just listened to the music in a convincing performance we would still be moved.”
That’s not to say Bychkov doesn’t believe in musical storytelling. “Take the theme of Astarte in the first movement, how do you want to phrase it?” he asks. “It’s exactly the same tune being repeated, but instead of a minor key, suddenly he takes us into a major key, so it has a different light. This, by the way, dispels the commonly held view that Tchaikovsky is repetitive in this symphony. There is always another orchestration, another tonality, which throws a different light on the same subject.”
If the first movement is littered with memorable themes, by comparison the second and third movements seem more conventional, more contained. The second, for example, depicting Byron’s Witch of the Alps, summoned from out of the rainbow haze of a mountain cataract to tempt Manfred with the beauties of nature, is clearly a Scherzo with something that can be perceived as a Trio. The pastoral third movement with its gentle Andante and rustic interludes owes a debt to Beethoven as much as Berlioz. Both are thoroughly likeable, so why did Tchaikovsky turn against them?
“The heart and soul of the creator, is so vulnerable,” reflects Bychkov. “When he saw that the symphony did not have much success, being the kind of person who always doubted himself, I think he just didn’t see a future for it. How many times he writes in his letters that he’s afraid he’s lost his creativity and there’s nothing left in him. I think it was just one of those moments where he thought he had not composed anything of value.”
For Bychkov, the most fascinating movement of all is the controversial finale in which Manfred appears in the midst of a Satantic revel and begs the devilish Arimanes to conjure up his beloved Astarte. “There are two places that present problems. One is the fugue and the other is the coda with the organ,” he explains. “The fugue comes after all this bacchanalia and madness, which is thrilling, but before the fugue starts we arrive at this very slow lento section, where effectively time stands still and everybody’s blood pressure goes down. After the madness comes the stillness, but it is not stillness, it is a paralysis. Then comes the leitmotif of Manfred and it is like in distorting mirrors when you see disfigured bodies – a little bit like Modigliani’s paintings, where everything is kind of elongated. It is unbelievably hard, to get the tempo going again after the madness and the fatigue. It requires unbelievable mental and physical effort. Until one does it, one doesn’t realise how hard it is.”
Manfred and the Alpine Witch by John Martin
Regarding the organ (or harmonium, as Tchaikovsky requests), Bychkov considers it essential that we do not find ourselves suddenly in Notre Dame listening to Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. “There is nothing wrong with the idea of forgiveness,” he posits. “Astarte can forgive Manfred, and through forgiveness he can die peacefully. However, if this is presented in a banal way with organ blasting you begin to cringe and that ruins everything.”
In other words, getting it right involves care, thought and a deal of proper preparation. “We have to train ourselves,” declares Bychkov. “Train and train and talk about it. With the Czech Philharmonic we played it for the first time in November after three days of rehearsal in a small city outside of Prague. It was the first try and it was alright, but it took from November to April for the piece to mature inside the orchestra. By the time we performed it in Prague, they realised it was a great masterpiece and they played it as if they were possessed. It was a tremendous transformation, which was very touching actually. This is what it takes to come to grips with a piece, even for a great orchestra.”
So, with Bychkov’s new Decca recording out now, has he finally learned the dark secret of this elusive symphony over his seven year sojourn with Manfred? “I haven’t stopped learning, I haven’t stopped!” he ejaculates. “When you deal with great music, that is the whole point. It is inexhaustible. The music remains the same, but our connection to it changes and evolves as we live with it. And that is the difference between music with no lasting value and a masterpiece.”
Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Manfred is out now on Decca.