Last summer, it was Rachmaninoff. This summer, Tchaikovsky. I am listening to every song he ever wrote, in preparation for a concert in New York on January 24 (with a Washington, DC preview on the 21st). Going through scads of art songs is a daunting process. My brain notates plain, digital facts like: “2/4 time, ternary form, hints of Russian folk song, nasty spot in the piano writing, exposed low note at end.” My soul, on the other hand, is playing a mean round of “Huckle Buckle Beanbag,” murmuring “You’re getting warmer…you’re getting colder…” as the songs pass by. Of course, I am ultimately looking for songs that tell the story of Tchaikovsky’s inner life, which is the thing that really interests me. But the beginning of the process is a little like computer dating. I scan song after song in search of something that attracts me.
I’m not very far in the process—I have 165 romances to go, God help me—but I did find myself playing this one over and over again: “Gently the soul ascended to heaven,” opus 47, #2. This being a Russian poem, the soul has flown to its eternal reward, but is still weeping. Why, ask the other souls? “Because here there is nothing but the sound of joy. But I still remember earth, where there is so much suffering. And I want to go back there, bringing consolation and comfort!”
Tchaikovsky could spin out melodies with the ease of Richard Rodgers (another composer on my desk this summer). This graceful song, which has the lilt of a ballet piece, also has a strange gravity. My brain can’t figure out where it comes from, but my soul feels it.