Through a series of tentative agreements, passive comments, whimsies, and guilt, I have come to find myself playing second chair oboe for our local community college symphony orchestra. I am not an oboist. Or rather, I am no longer an oboist. I am a music teacher and a composer. I played oboe when I was in high school. I’m an oboist the same way your coworker Bill from Accounting is a quarterback.
But I returned to playing oboe for the local band, and since I had been a band nerd, it was a familiar place to fall into, out of practice or otherwise. Band Oboes have the distinct privilege of being mostly pointless, often doubling Flute 2 or trumpets (for some reason) before suddenly having a surprise solo (cued for in Alto Sax 1). It’s easy to hide, but it’s also easy to feel worthless, so I was excited to play for an orchestra, where oboe parts having meaning and purpose.
The piece we’re playing is Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.
In case you don’t know Tchaikovsky’s 5th, it starts off with a canvas of strings playing chords beneath a clarinet soli solemnly expressing the inevitability of death. For me, as Oboe II, it starts off with fifty-seven andante measures of rest, which, if you don’t know, translates to roughly 3.7 years of counting to 4.
This time of rest, captive in my chair, forces me to do nothing but listen to the music going on around me. I used to do that in my youth. I would just sit there and listen to the music I loved. No homework, no chores. Just music. I find it harder to do that as an adult. There are places to be. Emails to think about responding to. Dishes.
I find it futile to describe music in words, but allow me to try. Tchaikovsky’s introduction starts off with an aching hollowness yearning to call out, but failing to have the energy to do so, before fading away in a hopeless resignation. It is a moment of isolation, wondering how it became so alone, feebly calling into the void and then giving up. It is austere, bare, and raw. It is a deep, muted crimson spilled over a vast desert sand and whisked away into the ether leaving nothing but a sad memory.
In other words: it starts with strings playing a slow minor chord progression with slight dynamic variation, and clarinets play a modal melody above it.
(I imagine someone trying to describe the Grand Canyon in such manner, that empty gorge so deep that it may contain the universe and all of its joys and sorrows within its space, from its junipers sprouting out of the soft red rock, layering down to the cactus frozen mid-leap looming above the crystalline river below – a canyon made up of smaller canyons, any one of which would be remarkable in its own right, and yet, when joined together, are dwarfed and devoured by the beast they create.
In other words: erosion in a desert.)
When I was younger, classical music captivated me through its complex and dynamic emotional energy, its intangible narrative voice, and its allusive imagery. There was something mystical about it, so when I became a teenager, I decided I wanted to study it. I wanted to crack the code and solve the riddle. I wanted to know its secrets. And then I wanted to create it, to wield it as a tool of expression and emotional manipulation.
So I learned things. I learned how leading tones resolve (unless they don’t). I learned that dominant function leads to tonic function (unless it doesn’t). I learned that a fugue answers the subject at the fifth (unless it doesn’t).
Minor is sad (until it isn’t).
Major is happy (unless it’s sad).
Functional harmonies have motion (unless they’re static).
Modal harmonies are static (unless they have motion).
Dissonance is unpleasant (until it’s pleasant).
Consonances are pleasant (until they’re unpleasant).
One and three are strong beats (but you clap on two and four).
And so on and so forth.
If I were to summarize everything I learned in music school into three principles, they would be this:
- Music’s emotional value is created by using tension and release.
- Music’s entertainment value is created by setting up expectations, and either fulfilling them or not fulfilling them.
- (until they aren’t)
There it is. Music is solved.
So with its mystery dead, I stopped enjoying it as much.
A melancholy yet hopeful chorale can be explained. The ii7 is borrowed from the parallel minor, half-diminished. It subverts expectations while increasing tension (melancholy), before resolving (hopeful). Case closed.
It was once a meadow of wilting flowers in early autumn. Now it’s a borrowed seventh chord.
Mystique is just ignorance. Santa is your mom. The tooth fairy is your dad. Hogwarts doesn’t exist. The seven dwarves were downtrodden serfs. Prince Charming murdered protestants. God is dead. Love is sex. Nationhood is a social construct. Cake has only ever tasted okay.
And yet, there stands Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, that muted crimson plain vanishing lonely into the wind. The icy Colorado, distant and frozen beneath the canyon of canyons, solitary and alone. Austere, bare, and raw. A feeble proclamation of existence, fading into resignation.
Why does it so captivate me?
I know what it is. The simple quarter-note rhythms with slight dynamic variation highlight an unremarkable military march motif, played deliberately on chalumeau clarinets. Its rests create a space of thoughtful silence allowing the listener to ruminate on the minor chords, and minor is sad. The sparse orchestration evokes a sense of emptiness.
Again, I know what it is.
But why is it what it is?
Where is its magic born?
And why do I allow myself the frustration of not knowing its secrets?
Meadows wilt in the autumn for a lack of sunlight and dropping temperatures. Flowers are just reproductive plant parts. They’re just half diminished seventh chords. But somehow, they still move me when I allow myself to be moved, no matter how actively my brain wages its war against mystery.
It’s hard for a proud, secular man to accept his limitations. This is the world of knowledge. Reality is facts. And yet, I must admit to myself that I am weak. That I know little. That there is too much beyond what I can understand. But also that I should want it that way.