Tchaikovsky’s Wandering and Melancholic Manfred Symphony

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with his wife Antonina Miliukova during their honeymoon in 1877.(Photo: Ivan Grigoryevich Dyagovchenko)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with his wife Antonina Miliukova during their honeymoon in 1877.(Photo: Ivan Grigoryevich Dyagovchenko)

Some of the emotional turmoil and unresolved conflicts of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky’s own life may be reflected in his large programmatic Manfred Symphony of 1885.

The work was inspired by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s dramatic poem, Manfred, about the psychologically tortured Faustian (or maybe I should say “Byronic”) character that gives the poem its name.

In the description of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s work, the melancholic hero wanders through the Alps obsessed with life’s unanswerable questions. He is tormented by a mysterious guilt and shattered by the death of his beloved Astarte.

There are also hints of a forbidden love. Tchaikovsky surely found an emotional resonance with Lord Byron’s hero and his own conflicted sense of sexuality.

In the poem, Manfred uses his mastery of language and casting of spells to conjure spirits from whom he hopes to gain forgetfulness. Tchaikovsky uses his mastery of music to express his inner turmoil by turning it into art that helps us remember our humanity.

It was fellow Russian composer Mily Balakirev who encouraged Tchaikovsky to write a work based on Manfred. Tchaikovsky himself had gone through a period of wandering before his life began settling down again around the time he wrote his programmatic symphony.

Watch the opening section of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony:

Tchaikovsky had a disastrous brief marriage in 1877, hoping to live a more “normal” life and suppress his homosexuality. That having failed, he wrote to his brother, Anatoly, that there was “nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature.”

The Manfred Symphony was written between Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but Tchaikovsky didn’t include it among his numbered symphonies, partly because the programmatic nature of the piece made it a kind of hybrid work.

In some ways it has more in common with the symphonic fantasy, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben than with a standard symphony.

At first he thought it was one of his best pieces but later had many doubts, even wanting to destroy the score at one point. But it does express very well the inner struggles of a character seeking absolution, or at least oblivion.

As Tchaikovsky struggled to fully accept his own “nature,” the hero of Lord Byron’s poem achieves a kind of apotheosis at the end.

The final part of the work proceeds with Tchaikovsky’s typical energy and passion:

This evening on Symphony at 7, you can hear the complete Manfred Symphony by Tchaikovsky on Classical 101.

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