There are two tragic symphonies in the standard repertory. They are both 6th symphonies, and they are by Tchaikovsky and Mahler. After class recently, I was apprised of some (prima facie eccentric, albeit by reasonably prominent commentators) interpretations that suggest that the Dvorak 9th and the Sibelius 7th symphonies conceal (and conceal is the thing, you can deduce nothing from the notes themselves, heard innocently) “tragic” programs.
Well, I think the word “tragic” is overused. And even if the programs are “proven” by documentary evidence doesn’t mean that what a composer thinks he has created is what a composer has created in actuality. Even great composers… maybe especially great composers prove this theory. Hence my new theory: to be tragic, you have to be unmistakeably tragic. So that every intelligent listener knows he’s heard a tragic symphony.
That brings us to Mozart 40, Schubert 4 (subtitled “tragic”, I know), Haydn 44 (“Mourning” symphony) and 49 (La Passione, written before 44) and maybe some others. Are these tragic? For my money, no. And the reason why is that they are contained by Classical symphonic formula, which is essentially optimistic, affirmative. You have to break something to be tragic. Hence Tchaik 6th and Mahler 6th, which break your heart, but also break convention, they break tradition, they defy expectations.
In the modern era, there are quite a few “tragic” symphonies…oh, let’s see. Hmm. Shostakovich 4, 8, and 14, Vaughan Williams 6 (but not 4, that reasserts convention!) Honeggar 5, etc. These symphonies are self aware, as are the Tchaik and Mahler exemplars. There are quite a few works that are mostly tragic, but don’t end tragically, pieces by Beethoven and Nielsen, for example. Some people consider the Sibelius 4 tragic, possibly seduced by its bleakness and his personal circumstances (throat cancer) at the time. By the ground rules my theory lays down, this is inadmissable…bleak is not a synonym for tragic, and the purely personal is ultimately ephemeral. I don’t find the Sib 4 tragic. Dark, of course. Sad? frequently. Melancholy? not really. That’s a rather self indulgent type of feeling not associated with Sibelius. What is tragic? Something definitive. Ambiguity itself isn’t tragic. Tragic is a definitive, culminatory thing. Show me any intelligent and sober listener who doesn’t find Mahler 6 tragic, and I’ll throw my theory out the window.
A purely personal note: Recently in class, for sentimental and irrelevant historical reasons, I termed the epilogue in Vaughan Williams 5 tragic. Well, this is a gaffe that I corrected in class the next week. By the way, just try giving 2 and 1/2 hour lectures 3 times a week and not produce some howlers. It probably can be done, but only by boring teachers. Well, that’s my defense, your honor. But it goes to prove my thesis: there is an inappropriate amelioration of the concept of the tragic in symphony.
By the way, in class, I regret not sticking to my guns in my, I think, tenable criticism of the Mahler 5th. In the Leinsdorf book I’ve written about, the maestro puts it well: “Mahler, then, was not even attempting to continue the traditions of symphonic writing, whereas Bruckner certainly was. Mahler became an icon for the Second Viennese School. His angst-filled works were the direct inspiration for Schoenberg’s Erwartung and for the greatest masterpiece of twentieth century music-theatre, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Mahler’s Sixth has the power to leave the most optimistic listener weak and depressed, while the Fifth is weakened by the composer’s attempt to introduce false and unconvincing optimism into four otherwise quite neurotic movements.” I had said the piece was a collection of tone poems, which I continue to think it is, but I forgot the big Chorale recap in the finale. I’m probably losing my memory, but I think there’s a reason I forgot the biggest “hoehe punkte” in the symphony; I remain unconvinced by it. But that’s just opinion. The Mahler 5th is greater than me, and probably greater than Erich Leinsdorf. I guess we should just be grateful to the master, and try to learn more.