Richard G. Epstein

 

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PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA

PERFORMS TCHAIKOVSKY'S

SEVENTH SYMPHONY

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Computer-Generated Symphony

Is Unqualified Triumph

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Ovation for Software Developer

Lasts Twenty-Five Minutes

After Performance

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Special to the Sentinel-Observer

by

Becky Barnow

Music Critic

The Philadelphia Orchestra performed the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony Thursday at Philadelphia's historic Academy of Music. The computer-generated composition received a wild ovation that lasted twenty-five minutes. Henrietta Quelles was the conductor.

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 shortly after the performance of his last symphony, number six, known as the "Pathetique". A somber work reflecting a surrender to fate, the Pathetique has been a orchestral workhorse ever since it was first performed. Some music historians believe that Tchaikovsky committed suicide by drinking cholera-tainted water shortly after the Pathetique was first performed. The Pathetique bears witness to his troubled and depressed state of mind.

Tchaikovsky's seventh symphony is the work of a computer program called TCHAIKOVSKY. The program is the brainchild of musicologist Peter Michovsky, a Russian-born composer, Computer Technologist and music scholar. The purpose of the TCHAIKOVSKY program is to emulate the manner in which Tchaikovsky might have composed had his life not been cut short.

Michovsky explained the purpose of his computer program in the program notes for the concert: "TCHAIKOVSKY is the most ambitious effort to date to enable composers to compose long after their deaths. TCHAIKOVSKY encodes literally tens of thousands of rules and principles that have been extracted, mostly by computer programs, from the existing corpus of compositions by our beloved Russian symphonic master. In addition, using inferences drawn from the evolution of classical, romantic and twentieth century composers who did survive to old age, the program tries to anticipate how TCHAIKOVSKY's symphonic style might have evolved had he lived."

Acclaim for the new work was universal and ecstatic. Claude Monroe, music critic for the New York Times was clearly moved by what he heard. "I felt and smelled the very breath of the living Tchaikovsky this evening," he told reporters after the concert. "This music was compelling, incredibly emotional. It was definitely consistent with the way Tchaikovsky's music was evolving. This symphony is a remarkable achievement of the human spirit."

The Seventh Symphony begins where the Sixth Symphony leaves off. Indeed, the opening chords of the Seventh are an exact quotation from the fading theme at the end of the Sixth.

"My intention was to create a resurrection symphony for Tchaikovsky, one that might have been written had he overcome his depression and triumphed over life completely. So, I instructed the program (TCHAIKOVSKY) to compose a symphony that would represent not the triumph of fate, but the triumph of love over fate, love over everything. Almost all of the musicianship belongs to the program. I set the basic thematic parameters, that this was to be a joyous symphony, the triumph of life over death."

After its somber opening chords, the Seventh Symphony rises to a triumphal hymn of impressive dimensions, fully twenty-five minutes in length. The orchestral colors are amazing, definitely Tchaikovskyesque in their flavor, but transcending anything that Tchaikovsky achieved in his life time. The end of the first movement brought a thundering ovation that lasted for five minutes until conductor Quelles begged the audience to sit down so that the concert could continue.

The second movement is a quiet pastoral, as sweet and as lovely as any slow movement that Tchaikovsky ever composed. It owes an obvious debt to the first movement of Tchiakovsky's famous string serenade, and the orchestration barely goes beyond the serenade form, with the woodwinds only occasionally adding their accent to the sweet song of love and peace. The brass and percussion instruments are not heard until the last few measures of this quiet movement. At the end of the second movement one hears syncopated beats from the timpanis, which suggest a lively dance melody, a celebration following the peaceful reflection, a precursor of the riotous third and fourth movements, which follow.

The fourth movement follows upon the third without interruption. The third movement brought the audience to its feet once again with its brilliant synthesis and transcendence of the greatest ballet music that Tchaikovsky ever wrote. It was Swan Lake elevated to transcendent, celestial heights. Clearly, the purpose of these two movements was a celebration of life, the quiet and peaceful reflection of the second movement, giving way to this ecstatic, almost mystical dance. And there was some kind of mystical vision in the center of it all, maintained by the basses and their slow, persistent melody, almost like a baroque basso continuo, that never varied throughout the third movement. It was peace at the center of the celebratory storm. In the fourth movement all quietude and reflection is abandoned for an ecstatic dance that once again brought to audience to its feet.

Music such as this does remind us what a tragedy it is when a creative life is cut short. Michovksy's computer program and unrivaled musical scholarship makes it entirely plausible that Tchaikovsky might have written a symphony such as this had he lived to a ripe old age. Yet, we shall never know the truth of the matter and it would be foolish to say that this is exactly what Tchaikovsky would have come up with. We can only thank Michovsky and his computer program for creating this marvelous work of art that is likely to become a staple of the symphonic repertoire for many generations.

One audience member, who spoke to reporters after the concert, voiced the opinion of many when she said, "Somehow this computer program has captured the spirit of Tchaikovsky. I really felt as though the real Tchaikovsky was there this evening. His presence was palpable, and it gave me goosebumps."

Michovsky's program has alerted music lovers to the likelihood that other composers will soon be "resurrected" using computer technology. Alexandra Strauss, a student of Michovsky's, is working with the government of Austria to produce a complete body of new works by Mozart using the principles that Michovsky used to develop his TCHAIKOVSKY program.

Speaking via teleview from Vienna, Dr. Strauss said that work on the MOZART program was progressing to the point that by 2030 she hopes to begin generating operas, symphonies, sacred choral music and chamber music that a 40-60 year old Mozart might have composed. "Our ultimate goal is to create a corpus of plausible works by a mature Mozart at least through age 60 and possibly beyond. We believe that MOZART, our program, will produce classical music that will be quite distinct from the classical styles developed by Beethoven and Shubert in the 1820s. Beethoven and Shubert would have been Mozart's younger contemporaries had Mozart survived to a reasonable age. Our theory is that Mozart would have taken classical music into an entirely new dimension, had he lived."

TCHAIKOVSKY and MOZART are computer systems of extraordinary complexity, requiring the latest in megacomputer technology. Megacomputers form the backbone of the Global Landscape's ubiquitous computer network, but they are far too expensive for most people to afford. Michovsky himself predicted, however, that by the end of the century, if not sooner, the common person will either be able to own or to access via the Global Landscape one or more great composers from the past.

"Imagine actually owning your own personal Tchaikovsky," Michovsky told reporters after the concert. "The day will come when you or I will be able to commission our own works by some of the great musical geniuses of the past. Imagine wedding music by Tchaikovsky, or new oratorios composed by a resurrected Bach."

The Philadelphia Orchestra will be releasing Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony this summer over the Global Landscape. The price has yet to be set. In addition, Silicon Valley classical music lovers will be able to hear the Philadelphians perform Tchaikovsky's Seventh next August when the Philadelphia Orchestra is scheduled to perform at Symphony Hall here in Silicon Valley.

 

1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

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