By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Ten years after using fate as a theme in his widely celebrated Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky looked to the idea of fate again to be his muse when writing his Fifth Symphony.

The question that has occupied Didi Balle is why?

“Why 10 years later would he decide to write another symphony and declare it is on the theme of fate?” Balle said. “I mean, Beethoven only wrote one symphony on fate. What compelled [Tchaikovsky]?”

Balle is the playwright-in-residence for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and she’s developed a new genre that looks to merge theater and music in the form of a Symphonic Play. The Symphonic Play blends musical excerpts played by a live orchestra with a story performed by onstage actors. Her upcoming work, Tchaikovsky: Mad But For Music is her fifth Symphonic Play to be commissioned and premiered by Marin Alsop and the BSO.

For Balle, the goal of a Symphonic Play is in finding a story behind a single piece or a composer’s life that opens the music up to the audience. The audience might know some historic footnotes about a composer or the time in which they lived, but Balle said that information resides in “from the shoulders up.” Stories are things we can all relate to regardless of our own time or place.

Balle Didi
Notes For Stalin
Notes For Stalin 2
(Top) BSO Playwright-in-Residence Didi Balle,
(Middle, bottom) Pictures from Balle's Notes for
Stalin
, performed last fall with BSO and in 2013
by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra

“We witness the struggles that they face — psychological, physical, emotional, creative, internal and external — and what they had to endure and work through [to create] a specific masterpiece,” Balle said. “I think what happens when the audience has the experience of the composer coming alive, they have a visceral relationship suddenly to these composers.”

In some cases, that story is clear. For Balle’s Notes for Stalin, which depicted Shostakovich writing his Fifth Symphony under the watchful and scornful eye of Soviet leadership, Balle she said she knew from the outset what the narrative would be when she first heard that Shostakovich wrote the symphony while he had a packed suitcase under his bed.

When Balle was approached to write a Symphonic Play about Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, she started research only with a simple question: why fate? Why did Tchaikovsky want to write a second symphony about a topic he had already channeled for a work quite successfully?

“That was the question that kept nagging me. As a person who writes or creates things, I thought what must have happened to make him want to do this again?” she said. “Because he did it, it was a huge success and he triumphed over fate. So what's going on? As a playwright, I though something must have compelled him.”

Finding an answer to that question involved months of research and many notebooks full of historic details and anything that stands out. Balle said that when she’s working on a Symphonic Play, character and scene ideas begin to emerge almost two months in.

“With the Tchaikovsky, I found the same scene ideas kept emerging and writing themselves in different ways,” she said.

One of those scenes came in the form of letters Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother. Right before beginning work on his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s often-tumultuous life seemed to be at a great place. The composer was on a fantastically successful European tour, and he was awarded an honorary lifetime pension from the Russian Tsar in recognition for his music.

But letters Tchaikovsky wrote his brother after a stop the composer made on his way home to Russia suggest something beyond those successes might have occupied his thoughts. Tchaikovsky stopped in Germany to visit a friend who was dying. According to those letters, that friend spent much of the time lamenting his own fate and speaking about how unfair life can be. For Balle, this visit might have been pivotal to answering her question.

“If I was sitting there like that, I think I might say, “God, do I want to die like this?” Balle said.

Tchaikovsky was a dedicated friend who stayed with the dying man for three weeks. That visit, Balle said, might have forced Tchaikovsky to reexamine some of the baggage in his own life and bring him to want to reconcile it as to not end up like his friend.

Ten years earlier when writing his Fourth Symphony that channeled the idea of triumphing over fate, a number of the most important events of Tchaikovsky’s life took place including the beginning and end of a disastrous marriage, a failed attempted suicide, a trip to Italy where he wrote his violin concerto and the beginning of a relationship with the wealthy patron and confidant Nadezhda von Meck.

For Balle, the fact Tchaikovsky musically returned to the idea of fate also suggests that the composer revisited important parts of his life happened when he last composed about fate — parts that he might have once thought resolved — and there are historic and musical clues to support this idea that she explores in her new work.

What Balle said she hopes to accomplish for the audience in Tchaikovsky: Mad But For Music is the same goal she has for all of her Symphonic Plays. Balle said the music can certainly stand on its own merits, but she hopes that seeing composers and their stories depicted on stage helps to humanize people and places that can sometimes seem heady and abstract and by extension might help the audience have a deeper, more personal connection to the music.

“When you see what they do and what they face — and how they create and mine that experience — it inspires us, I think,” Balle said. “And then you realize the struggles they face and we face are not that different.”