Tales of Despair: The Tragedy of the Symphony “Pathétique”


This is the first post of what I hope will become an ongoing series on the nature of despair. What I envisage is to introduce a work of art – be it imagery, poetry, music, film or novel – that was created from the darkest places of the soul. Darkness and despair have been a part of my life since my early teens, and as I have grown accustomed to it, and rediscovered joy in the midst of it, I have become inextricably marked by depression, and to this day there is nothing in the world so comforting as a warm, dark corner where no one can see me, My Dying Bride playing in the background, and a glass of wine reflecting the candlelight.

Being a musician and composer by training, many of these tales are likely to revolve around songs, symphonies and albums. However, I hope to reach out to further art forms, and discover among the canon of literature, film and imagery endless tales of despair.

The Tragedy of the Symphony Pathétique

There is in my mind no more fitting work of art more wrought with despair than Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, popularly known as the Pathétique (in Russian, Patetičeskaja). This is a piece of music that passes through a sea of emotions of an intensity beyond anything I have heard or seen in my life. From the moodiness of the opening to the fury of the first movement’s climax, the calm sadness of the lilted waltz to the dizzying madness of the third movement, and ultimately the chilling, profoundly bleak finale, in fifty minutes this symphony takes the listener through a world of thought and a lifetime of tragedy.

The symphony’s name derives from the Russian word for passion, not pity, and it is a just name. The deep and overwhelming sadness of this music, however, is how closely it ties to Tchaikovsky’s turbulent personal life. Six days after its world première, Tchaikovsky died. He claimed to his brother that the symphony was steeped in meaning, but he would not reveal the music’s subject to anyone. Some have since said that it was his final death letter.

Tchaikovsky’s own life was a mirror for this tragedy. His sorrows began with the death of his mother at the age of fourteen, and from that day onwards he succumbed to a cloud of depression that even the recognition he eventually garnered could not completely break him free of. His life was a tale of abandonment, despair and frustration; Though homosexual, the social convictions of Victorian Russia prevented him not only from being open about this, but even from acknowledging it in his own mind. He suffered two affairs, both of which ended with the woman he cared for leaving him. He did eventually marry, but they lived together for less than two months, and she eventually bore children from another man.

Even the one light of hope – his patron, Nadezhda, with whom he corresponded for thirteen years in over a thousand letters – ceased communication with him in 1890, and he remained hurt, bitter and bewildered over this for the remaining three years of his life.

Tchaikovsky died in 1983 by his own hand. Perhaps he had become overwhelmed by the depth of despair into which his life had sunk; perhaps he could no longer bear the terrible conflict of his sexuality, which culminated in an attempted affair with his own nephew. On the night of the première of the sixth symphony, Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water, contracted cholera, and died six days later.

The terrible pain, sadness and despair is overwhelmingly prevalent in this symphony. Before his death, Tchaikovsky confided to his brother that the symphony was full of a deeper meaning, but would not say what it was. After he died, his brother realized he had been speaking of his own death – his final symphony, a monument to tragedy, was his suicide note. A parallel for his own life – childhood sadness, angst and fear at odds with the fervor and passion of creativity. Tchaikovsky destroyed more manuscripts than he completed – the artist’s madness refusing to allow him to ever be content with his own music.

This symphony, even out of context, is a tragic and moving musical journey; always a master of emotion, the composer filled his final work with every skill he possessed, and left us thus with his greatest work being his last. When considered as the final cry of a doomed man, a testament to despair, the final, terrible notes of the finale take on the reek of death, and speak of the utter finality of the grave. Tchaikovsky knew as he wrote that this symphony would be his last, and killed himself upon its completion.

For Seven Days, I Turned Off the Internet…And the World Didn’t End

Last week I got to do something very cool, and it was something I’ve never done before. I turned off the internet.

I suppose I can’t really claim that the entirety of the internet went down entirely, although if it had I wouldn’t have noticed, because I experienced a week of digital abstinence. The worst part is, I meant to.

Wow. What an admission that is. Imagine choosing not to receive emails, or text messages, or RSS feeds, or (horror!) WordPress hits. Imagine that, if you wanted to write something down, you had to use an archaic instrument known as a pen. Imagine not knowing whether you had new Facebook friends!

Such a world I lived in for an entire week. To give a bit of context, for most of the time between 12:00 PM one Saturday and 2:00 PM the following Saturday, I was in the middle of the ocean somewhere between Port Canaveral and Nassau in the Bahamas. I didn’t get wet, though, because I was on a boat. The boat was big, and in the end we had to share it with a few other people as well, but the captain was from Sweden and so I didn’t really mind.

I suppose I can’t actually claim to have shunned all technology entirely; I did bring a digital camera with me, as well as my iPhone (just for recording video, I swear). Between them, I captured 1,200 photos and two hours of video. I don’t want to look at them, because if I do I won’t ever stop. These pixellated memories are so numerous because my plethora of iDevices weren’t dinging and pinging and swishing every few minutes with something I decided was really important to know about. I didn’t receive an email. I didn’t get a text. I didn’t read a tweet, or update a feed. In fact, I ended up with such an awful lot of time on my hands that I had to look at the ocean sometimes, which was nice because there were quite a few sunsets to be had.

Another thing I had time for was thinking. After all, when you don’t have Wikipedia, you have to come up with your own answers to things. An astronaut told us that the body’s immune system doesn’t work in space, and gosh – we had to dig deep into our own poor wisdom to try to figure out why. My wife and I felt like scientists, trying to answer a question no one knows the answer to.

Above all, I was inevitably forced to spend time with my family. Man alive, the distraction of the internet is certainly a blessing for those who want nothing to do with their loved ones! I’ve been trying to keep a few chapters ahead of where my son and I are in the Redemption of Erâth, just in case one week I don’t write something, but I used them all up because he really, really wanted to know what happened next. At the end of chapter 12, I had to tell him that there actually wasn’t any more yet, and he nearly beat me. As for my wife, I had to share a jacuzzi with her, be sympathetic when she got seasick, eat a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries with her, sing karaoke with her, kiss her, and simply just be with her for seven days straight. Can you imagine?

At first, I was very worried. What was happening at home? What if someone at work really need to get in touch with me, even though I’m not really in charge of anything at all? What if my mom called? What if someone read my blog? What if a groundhog made a nest under the house? What if something really, really unimportant happened somewhere in the world? I wouldn’t be able to answer calls, say thank you to blog likes, take goofy pictures or read all about it on my iPad. I felt lost. But then, an odd thing began to happen. I slowly came to the following realization:

None of it matters.

Nope. Not one bit. Not one single thing in the imaginable universe was more important than spending seven entirely uninterrupted days with my wife and son in the Caribbean. Because you know what? I could always find out when I got back. And if I missed something in the meantime? Well, if it was something so ephemeral it only lasted a week, it probably wasn’t important enough to know about in the first place. If my schedule changed, I’d find out when I got back. If scientists discovered life on Mars, I’d find out when I got back. Hell, if my mother died, I’d find out when I got back.

In the end, of course, I got back. I came back to 101 emails, 91 tweets, 8 Facebook notifications, 66 RSS updates, 3 voice mails and 30 app updates. And you know what?

None of it really mattered.

I feel really happy right now. I don’t think I can live without connection in my working, every day life, but never again will I go on a holiday without turning off, leaving behind or utterly disabling my many devices. It is beyond worth it.

Movies I Am Already Looking Forward to This Year

I am not a great fan of movies that are billed as “the most original since…” or “brilliant ★★★★” (how I loathe those stars). I don’t particularly care for gut-wrenchers that seem to exist solely to beat your spirit to the ground with an iron rod. And I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch an avant-garde, indie film whose creators lost sight of the story amidst their obsession with being different.

What I do enjoy are films that have a strong story, strong characters and strong directing. Actors are neither here nor there; I’ve rarely seen a good movie ruined by a poor actor, and never seen a bad movie saved by one. Cinematography is important, but must take second place to the story. Explosions, too, are important, but must also be a passenger to the story. Effects in general should serve the story, and not the other way around. This is why Hugo was amazing, and Transformers was not.

My favorite films include Alien, Angel Heart, Corpse Bride, The Crow, The Da Vinci Virus (not Code), The Dark Knight, Donnie Darko, Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola’s version), Ginger Snaps, The Goonies, The Hitcher (with Rutger Hauer, not Sean Bean, love him though I do), Jacob’s LadderThe Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Love Actually, The Lovely Bones, The Muppets’ Treasure Island, Ring (Hideo Nakata’s version), Sin City, Star Wars (yes, all of them), This Is Spinal Tap and WALL•E.

An odd mix, perhaps, but it sets the scene, I suppose. Some of these have spectacular visual effects; Coppola in particular impressed me by using absolutely no digital effects at all in his Dracula. Jackson impressed me just as much with his almost entirely digital Lord of the Rings. Both of these were based on exceptionally good story material. In fact, I like to think the same could be said of each of the above. And so that is why the following films are the ones I am looking forward to seeing the most this year (knowing, of course, that some might change):

April 13: The Cabin in the Woods

Can’t say I know much about this; critics are being very wary of giving anything away, and this in itself is intriguing me. It reminds me of the glory days of Hitchcock (or even E.T. The Extraterrestrial for that matter) when nothing but actually seeing the movie would tell you anything about it. People are calling it art-horror, and I’m good with all of that. [IMDB]

April 27: The Raven

An interesting play into the fictional history genre; detectives seek out Edgar Allan Poe to help them capture a murderer inspired by his own writing. I love Poe; I love John Cusack; I love period films. Period. [IMDB]

May 11: Dark Shadows

I’ll be honest – I didn’t even look this one up. It’s based on a TV series, apparently. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp…enough said (no Helena Bonham Carter though, disappointingly). [IMDB]

June 8: Prometheus

Ridley Scott has done an excellent job of keeping the nature of this movie a secret, and even the tantalizing images and trailers that are leaking out are giving nothing away. Remember the first one in my list of favorite films? Yep. [IMDB]

June 15: Brave

Disney and Pixar’s thirteenth outing is a must-see for me because I have an eight-year-old, and…well, just because. Pixar are gods in my eyes, and this goes way beyond the animation; WALL•E was a dangerously unorthodox love story, as was Up, which followed it. This one looks like an interesting departure from the usual tales, however – as someone pointed out to me, it is the first Disney/Pixar release to feature a female lead. I also like Scotland. [IMDB]

June 15: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

I’m not sure how this film ever got green-lit, but I’m glad it did. Like The Raven, we’re looking at fictional history, and this time it just looks plain silly. Tim Burton at the helm again (he’s busy this year!), and Abe looks awesome wielding an axe! [IMDB]

July 20: The Dark Night Rises

Pretty predictable, I guess – first summer blockbuster of the year, and probably going to outsell every other single film in the history of anything, ever. Batman Begins was good. The Dark Knight was astonishing, and unexpected. I was brought to the edge of my seat, and was so glad that Christopher Nolan didn’t back off, and pushed the story all the way off the edge and into darkness. I’m anxious to see if The Dark Night Rises falls somewhere between the two, or becomes simply the most amazing action movie of all time. [IMDB]

August 3: Total Recall

I don’t think they could possibly top Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, but still…I’m just going to have to see it, for the hell of it. Along with Robocop next year. [IMDB]

October 5: Frankenweenie

A return to the magic of Tim Burton animation. I can’t wait. [IMDB]

October 29: Cloud Atlas

This movie looks impossible, in concept at least. The characters are spanned across time and space, and are yet connected to each other in way that has not been revealed, and will probably rent the fabric of the universe when it is. Oh, and I should mention: Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant. I realize I said actors were neither here nor there…but these ones are all here. [IMDB]

December 7: Les Misérables

If they do to this what they did to Chicago, we’re in for a treat. [IMDB]

December 14: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I have been looking forward to this movie for ten years, and it can not come soon enough. In a way, though, I’m glad I still need to wait another 274 days; no matter what happens this year, no matter how terrible things might get, finishing 2012 with The Hobbit will make it all okay. This is magic of another kind. [IMDB]

And that’s it. Maybe more will come out, and there might be some I’ve somehow missed. I don’t really keep up on these things; these are just the ones Zite told me about. Perhaps you’d like to share the films you’re most excited to see this year?

Note: The further away the movies’ release dates are, the less accurate these dates will be. The ones I’ve given are as stated on the IMDB as of writing.