The Program Symphony

January 11, 2008
By John Dwyer, Wheaton, IL

Note: The term “Program music” refers to musical works written to fit a preconceived narrative or idea. One famous example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “Pastorale”; a musical narrative about a troupe of picnickers who encounter a thunderstorm. This story was inspired, in part, by Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony.

St. Petersburg, Russia
October 25, 1892

For nearly twenty years I have honored my promise never to meet or speak with you. I know how you value your solitude. Believe me; I would never threaten our friendship by trying to meet you unless it became unavoidably necessary. However, I also care about you. I have heard things concerning you that worry me.

About a fortnight ago I had Maksim Vaidanovitch and Piotr Hadarin over to my apartment on Nevsky Prospekt for tea. When you wrote of Maksim’s talent for the violin, I thought that you were merely doting on a student. You proved correct—he plays very vigorously. We played through your Violin Concerto in D major (Piotr and I took the piano) and he emerged from the ordeal almost unscathed.

Before he left, Maksim asked me a question. “Countess Illyina, you are Maestro Lebedev’s patroness, I believe?”

“Yes, he’s my expensive hobby. I have been with him since his first ballet, Romeo and Juliet.” (I always say that when people ask about you. They think it’s witty.)

“I was wondering, if Lebedev were to go to court, would you pay his legal fees?”

This worried me. I asked what crime you had committed, but he only muttered some nonsense about “our convoluted legal bureaucracy” and then departed. He left me somewhat disconcerted. I spent the rest of the evening staring out my window at the painted buildings on Nevsky (you know how pretty they look when the snow falls; the pinks, yellows and pale greens seem to ornament the snow) and thinking of you, Maestro.

Some days later, I received a letter from Maksim’s father—the Count Vaidanovitch.

To the Honorable Countess Irina Illyina,

It has come to my attention that you were visited by my son, Maksim, on October 10 and that he may have disclosed certain rumors concerning the composer Timofei Lebedev. I would urge you to disregard such evil, vile, disgusting rumors. I assure you that Timofei Lebedev will never enter a court of law.

I would further ask that you, Honorable Countess, refrain from repeating such rumors. I need hardly remind you that less than a brief decade ago our beloved and honorable Czar Alexander the Second was assassinated by vile, contemptuous revolutionaries in our very own city of St. Petersburg. In perilous times such as these, it is our first priority to defend and protect the honor and the reputation of our nobles and public figures. It is best for all of us, for me, for Maksim my son, for you—Honorable Countess, and indeed for Lebedev if those vile rumors are never repeated.

There is no need for anxiety, honorable countess. A committee has already been assembled to deal with Maestro Lebedev’s secret.
--The Honorable Count Artyom Vaidanovitch

Tima, I fear that you may have gotten into trouble. Tell me what has happened. I do not know if writing down the “secret” Count Vaidanovitch mentions on paper would be safe—besides, I have always wanted to meet you in person and this seems like a particularly good time for it. I assure you that I can resolve any legal problem you might have.

On a less serious note, of course I will handle the expenses of premiering your sixth symphony. I brim with anticipation to hear it; I hope it touches me as poignantly as the last did.

With Love,
The Countess Irina Illyina

November 18, 1892

Yesterday, as I wrote away hundreds of rubles to some blackguard from the Conservatoire of music, it occurred to me that you have not yet answered my last letter.

Timofei Lebedev, what should I think? Have you committed a crime too terrible to share with me? I apologize, but I cannot picture you as a hardened criminal—men who write ballets often find a life of crime unsavory. After twenty years of correspondence, do you still hate the idea of meeting me? Do you not trust me?

You trusted me enough to take care of your wife when you separated. I endured that woman’s madness—for your sake—Tima. Almost every week she escaped out into the streets, looking for you, and I had to call the police to bring her back. The poor woman could have gotten lost, or starved, or caught cholera, or drowned in the Neva out by herself. I will never, not until the end of the world, forget the time she mistook my sofa for your body and preceded to make violent love to it. She completely destroyed the innocent piece of furniture.

You know, she remained fond of you until the end. During her hallucinations, she would talk about her seven children; she named each one of them Timofei, after you.

Back to my point: If I can endure the destruction of an antique sofa for your sake, I can also keep your secret.

Tima, you matter to me. Nobody else has ever written a symphony for me. I spend entire weeks anticipating your letters; since Konstantin died, they have become my only holidays.

If you do not reply, I intend to confront you at the premiere of your symphony.

With Love,
The Countess Irina Illyina

November 27, 1892

My apologies for not writing back sooner. Please don’t try to find me at the premiere. No legal problems; the committee has decided what must be done.

With Love,
Timofei Lebedev

December 9, 1892

Before I chide you again, I must congratulate you. The symphony sounded magnificent, a magnificent tragedy—I do not know how to explain it. I have never heard something so sad and beautiful. Listening, I remembered when Konstantin died, not in the way I recall most things—as a story my memory tells me; I lived it again, the panic and the musk of funerals and how I cannot speak to him anymore. I do not know what else I can say.

I met with the Countesses Polyakova and Kharitonova afterwards (two wonderful ladies who you do not know but should) at the Palkin restaurant, and they agree with me. Everybody agrees; you have never written a more innovative, complex work.

I have only one criticism. You titled it The Program Symphony, but you did not publish any program. This confused me. Why did you call it that if it doesn’t have a program?

Now, chiding. How dare you respond to my letters with that ludicrously diminutive note? You have insulted me. If you do not tell me what you have done soon, I will do something rude. I almost tried to interrogate Maksim at the premiere, but he escaped the concert hall sometime during the second movement. You, of course, also eluded me.

Write back. Tell me your crime, why the Count Vaidanovitch is involved, and why he has assembled this “committee”.

With Love,
The Countess Irina Illyina

December 15, 1892
Timofei Lebedev,

First of all, I apologize. I acknowledge that arriving at your apartment was rude of me, and that I have knowingly broken a twenty year long pact.

I must admit, Maestro Lebedev, seeing you for the first time jolted me. We have had so many conversations on paper, yet when we met neither of us had anything to say. We talked in platitudes, like strangers.

Partly because of that, I regret I must stop sending you letters. I worry about you too much, it ruins my health—yet you refuse to speak with me, you ignore my letters, you do nothing to alleviate my fears. You continue to hurt me—I am tired of it.

Please feel free to ask for money whenever you need it.

The Countess Irina Illyina

January 4, 1893
To the Honorable Countess Irina Illyina,

I know that you have been a friend to my brother for a very long time. As you may have heard, he has contracted cholera. He will probably die in less than two weeks.

He asked for you to visit him. Please come. He is so unhappy.

Tatyana Lebedev

January 8, 1893
Dear Tatyana Lebedev,

Yes, I have heard. You and your children have my sympathies. If your family ever needs anything, please ask me. I am a woman of considerable means.

While I love your brother, I cannot seriously consider visiting a cholera victim. Haven’t the doctors quarantined him?

Give your brother my love.

The Countess Irina Illyina

January 12, 1893
My Ira,

I apologize for not writing back to you. I have no excuse. You are my best friend, and I have repeatedly and rudely snubbed you.

Also, my behavior on the night you visited me. I regret that you had to see the pathetic, neurotic drunkard I become outside of our letters and our music. One of the reasons I never wanted to meet you in person is that we have already written to each other about everything most important to us; why mar our friendship by disappointing you with my external self?

Your last letters asked me certain questions. I cannot answer those questions.
I will tell you only one secret, the program to the last symphony. Not even Tanya knows it. I do not think anybody but you ever will.
I set the symphony to a folk tale, a silly little story—it might make a good ballet.
The first movement, in its essence, is about youth—confidence. It begins with the voice of fate—the dark and wheezing song of an oboe—foreshadowing and calculating all that will come (this is the first subject group). A woodcutter and his son in their cottage at the edge of the forest; the son wants to venture out into the woods and seek fortune. An allegro non troppo theme in the higher strings—the desire for horizon, to be closer to the sunset—driven by an underlying march (the second subject group). But then the father warns of danger in the forest, and his words recall the unalterable words of fate. They argue, thus the dialectic of the first movement. It ends with a coda, firm, the brass united—the son must go.
Second movement: Love. In ¾ time, a waltz. Not a second dry of tenderness in this movement. The son enters the forest. Between the black columns of the tree trunks he glimpses the princess of the wood—but when he runs to her she shimmers away. Perhaps once my Ira, when you were walking through some street or park you thought you heard someone call out your name behind you, and you turned to look—but it was nothing, after a moment of stillness, you realized that the voice was only wind and imagination. That sensation. So the melody wafts up past the cellos to the violins, then falls, escapes, as he chases her through the forest. And all of this yearning within the waltz, colored by love.
Third movement: Disillusionment, the fastest movement, allegro molto vivace. The princess leads the woodcutter’s son to her palace in the forest. A regal place, attended to by legions of emblazoned guards and knights. An exuberant fanfare on the horns. But it is a trap. The Princess’s father lurks beneath the palace; the sorcerer and king of the forest—a gigantic toad with a lascivious appetite for gems and human blood. A pompous, wicked creature, his supremacy reinforced by the bulk of his fat. Sinister, staccato harmonies undercut the splendor of the fanfare. The son senses danger, and scurries away, mad scuttling across the strings as the horns and trumpets deteriorate into evil.
Fourth movement: Death. Adagio lamentoso.
He cannot escape. The toad king catches him, and curses him with a slow death. Time slows to a somber adagio. Again the oboe, the voice of fate. He struggles fiercely, the strings sing, apassionata, as he clutches onto a tree’s bark and tries to pull himself up, to regain his strength. But he hears fragments of the angel’s requiem between the torments of his fight. His death throes calm. The music descends.
The forest, all earthly sights and sounds and smells, fade. Pianissimo. Almost no sound at all.
Three soft beats on the timpani. Silence.
Ira, you are right, this was my best symphony. And I think you know that it was not because of the technical innovations or whatever other brilliant things I did. As the apostle said, “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13)
`As you know, I am on my death bed. The doctor will not let me see anyone, I am, after all, terribly contagious. He has trapped me in my little room. I can see nothing from my window but falling snow, as comforting and blank as the darkness behind my own eyelids.
Nightmares of naked Gods and demons wake me during my sleep; as I return to consciousness I recognize their images as the manifestations of my need to vomit, and I ruin the sheets. All my organs hate each other. The only pleasures I have left are chocolate (the purest and least adulterous of all worldly pleasures) and the Brothers Karamazov. I am not certain if I really consider the second a pleasure. All of the characters are crazy.
I suppose that this will be the last letter I write to you, and that I will never read your response. Ira, I love you more than I have loved any other woman. Without your letters and your support so much of my life would have been desolate. I comfort myself with the thought that you and the others I love will never discover what kind of man you have wasted your kindness on, will never suffer the disgrace of association with a criminal.
I once heard a story about a woman whose son died. One morning, she saw a robin gliding, and, inexplicably, knew that her son had sent the bird from beyond the grave—as a symbol of love. Such stories are common; the bloom of a lilac, the gliss of imaginary notes in the breeze, these may carry the messages of ghosts. If God grants me the power to create such omens once I have gone, I promise you, I will continue our correspondence, forever.

Always faithful,
Timofei Lebedev

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