TELLURIDE – The history of music has its share of mysteries and intrigues. Fueled by our fantasies about the composers’ lives and by the emotions of the music itself, they add to the allure of many great works. The circumstances surrounding Mozart’s and Tchaikovsky’s deaths have invited theories of foul play, and scholar-scientists are forever running the latest tests on the remaining wisps of Beethoven’s hair, hoping to find out what did him in.
The San Juan Symphony’s performance at the Palm Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 15 at 5 p.m., a fundraiser for the Telluride Choral Society, will include works by several composers whose demises are still unresolved.
In the case of Franz Schubert, some clue to his tragically short life (31 years) seems to bubble up in the brooding opening bars of his Unfinished Symphony, to be performed first in this Sunday’s performance. The fact that he lived another six years and completed countless other works at a prodigious pace after abandoning the Unfinished tugs even more at our sense of reason.
The many theories that attempt to account for the work’s unfinished status make for lively reading. What is clear is that something sidetracked the composer, after which he was too involved with other projects to return to the B minor symphony. One plausible explanation is that in late 1822 Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis, the disease he would later succumb to, and lost his creative concentration for a time. Did the young composer know he was abandoning a masterpiece? Probably not − his frenetic pace of writing and the absence of performances of his works both suggest that he was likely little concerned with what we now judge as quality or legacy.
The Unfinished remains Schubert’s most popular score because it is his best symphonic music – full of drama, character and color. Indulging in a little intrigue about its creation is just icing on the cake. Schubert was little known in his own time; only a handful of his works were published in his lifetime, and he never heard a public performance of any of his symphonies.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the greatest musical talent to come out of nineteenth century Russia. Despite professional success, Tchaikovsky’s life was marked by ongoing personal anguish. It is always questionable scholarship to draw direct parallels between events in a composer’s personal life and the character of his music, but it seems unavoidable in Tchaikovsky’s case. He led a secret life as a homosexual within a very repressive society, and the heightened emotionalism of his music appears to be a confession of his inner struggle.
In one prominent example, the manic moods of his Fourth Symphony coincide with his desperately quick and tragically failed attempt at married life. Tchaikovsky hoped to cure himself of his homosexuality by marrying a young student with whom he had nothing in common. He suffered a nervous breakdown six months later and fled to Italy, leaving his brother to annul the marriage back home. Even more intriguing is his death, which traditionally has been attributed to cholera. Recently some theorists have suggested that it may have been a coerced suicide; an affair that Tchaikovsky was having with the Tsar’s nephew threatened the reputation of an elite society to which he belonged.
His Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture is the piece with which Tchaikovsky began to find his own voice. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired the composition of more music than perhaps any other literary work. Although critics praised Tchaikovsky’s love theme, the piece did not have a successful premiere and underwent two revisions before Tchaikovsky was satisfied with its final form in 1880. Tchaikovsky used the contrast between the families’ feud and the lovers’ passion to generate a masterful sonata form, with two dramatically different themes and a combative development section with an ending that somehow expresses both triumph and tragedy and brings this magnificent work to a close.
Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) has created a unique niche in the contemporary music world, composing works directly inspired by American popular culture. His Metropolis Symphony and Bizarro are tributes to the Superman comics. Other titles include Desi, Sing Sing: J Edgar Hoover, Jackie O, Ghost Ranch, Motor City Triptych, Route 66, Spaghetti Western, Sunset Strip, and Hell’s Angels. Critics have commented that his music, with its abundant rhythmic energy, brilliant sounds, penchant for extremes, and humor, may just provide the link to pop culture that has been lacking in classical music.
Daugherty writes: “No rock and roll personality seems to have inspired as much speculation, adulation and impersonation as Elvis Presley (1935-77). In Dead Elvis (1993), the bassoon soloist is an Elvis impersonator accompanied by a chamber ensemble. The principal musical theme in my composition poses the question, is Elvis dead or alive beyond the grave of Graceland? In Dead Elvis we hear fast and slow fifties rock and roll ostinati in the double bass, violin, and bongos, while the bassoonist gyrates, double-tongues, and croons his way through variations of Dies irae. Elvis is part of American culture, history, and mythology, for better or for worse. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.”
Also to be performed Sunday will be Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Bassoon in E minor.
Tickets for Sunday’s performance can be purchased through the Palm website (www.telluridepalm.com) or by calling the Palm at 369-5669. There are two seating choices: regular, $25 adults/$15 students; and premier, $40 adults/$25 students.
For more information about the San Juan Symphony, visit www.sanjuansymphony.com.