“The program of this symphony is completely saturated with myself and quite often during my journey I cried profusely,” wrote Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the letter to his cousin Vladimir Davydov in February 1893. The symphony mentioned in the letter was the Russian composer’s last piece, the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, which is also known as the Pathétique Symphony.
As Tchaikovsky passed away nine days after leading the first performance of the symphony on October 28 the same year, nobody knows exactly what made him cry so much. The cause of his early death at the age of 53 remains also unknown. Some speculate that he died of a contagious disease while others believe that he committed suicide due to rumors and pressure about his sexual orientation. What’s clear is the composer’s cry and the dark mood of the Pathétique Symphony are related to each other. To understand the piece, therefore, must be followed by understanding the psychological situation that he was in at the moment. This is where the challengers of conductors leading the Pathétique Symphony come from.
This is why Chang Han-na who made a transition from a world-class cellist to a globally-renowned conductor focuses on the profusely-shed tears of and letters written by Tchaikovsky when she interprets the symphony. She compares herself to a translator with a belief that the Russian composer’s passion, pain, hope, and despair seeped into each note in the piece. Just like a translator who tries to understand the intention of a writer and deliver it in a different language, Chang believes that it is her duty as a conductor to serve a composer by reproducing his or her music based on the deep understanding of his or her intention.
The South Korean conductor recently visited her home country with the Norwegian Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. She tried to deliver the tears shed by Tchaikovsky while composing the Pathétique Symphony and the desperation he must have felt during the last moments of his life through music to the South Korean audience. She also helped the anguish projected by the composer in the form of music resonate with the existential sorrow felt by the audience. The music recreated by Chang with all of her energy might have comforted some with bittersweet sadness. Grief being healed with sorrowful music – this is one of the ever-lasting gifts that music presents.