A Sweeping Presentation of the Main Theme

Brenda Rankin

I always have this strange feeling that I’m this very old woman laying down 
about to die, you know, that my life is just memories or something.

—Julie Delpy, in BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)


November 6, 2010: My boyfriend, Matt, won expensive (to us, anyway), eighth-row seats to the Fresno Philharmonic for their “Total Tchaikovsky” November event by commenting on an article about the concert on the local newspaper’s website. We promptly drove across town to the paper’s offices to claim them, and felt properly special when we found they were reserved for him at the front desk, in an envelope with his name written on it by their arts critic.

The evening of the concert, we scrambled around our apartment, putting together our best approximation of the stately elegance we’d seen, from our usual student rush seats in the nosebleed rows, that eighth-row seats at the Philharmonic deserved. Matt worked his feet into his pair of nice, shoe-horn-required loafers. Rather than the simple wash-and-air dry treatment I usually bestowed upon my hair, I added mousse and bobby pins, eager for the chance to recreate the voluminous topknot I’d seen atop Audrey Tautou’s head in the recent Coco before Chanel, in the scenes depicting the epitome of timeless chic, Ms. Coco Chanel herself, in her twenties.


Early November, 1893: Fifty-three-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky returned home from yet another late dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Moscow feeling nauseous. After a fitful night’s sleep, he woke up feeling worse, but he brushed it off, and tried to carry on with his daily routine. Tchaikovsky often felt ill, and his feelings of illness often passed quickly enough, and he’d never had reason to take them seriously.


November 6, 2010: With all of our rushing to get ready for the concert, Matt and I arrived downtown with a half hour to spare. We made our way through the William Saroyan theatre, and settled into our seats, taking our time to work out the best places to keep our coats, my purse, and our programs, periodically shoving our laps out of the way of the people edging past us to their own seats. During my leisurely perusal of the program, the theatre, the pre-orchestra stage setup and the other audience members, I eavesdropped on the loud voices of the trio of twenty-somethings in the ninth row. Just before the lights dimmed, one of them laughed that, after surveying the audience, he was confident that he and his friends were bringing down the median age quite a bit.

The concert began with “Fatum,” a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky wrote when he was only twenty-eight. Before the house lights had gone out, I’d read in the program that Tchaikovsky had hoped this symphony would produce some kind of personal catharsis for him, as, even as young as he was, he’d always felt the weight of fate in his own life. This fact hovered in the back of my mind as a silent lyrical accompaniment to the orchestra; it both concerned and comforted me, as I am a member of the same absurdly-young-to-be-so-panicked-by-fate club. “Man is born a slave, a slave he dies,” Tchaikovsky wrote for the program at the symphony’s premiere. “Will even death reveal to him why thus he labored in this vale of tears?”

Although I suspect teenaged violin sensation Chad Hoopes was the intended star of this evening’s concert, it was “Fatum,” played before Hoopes ever took to the stage, that captivated me, that had me staring at the musicians on stage so hard I’d go cross-eyed for a moment, have to close my eyes and shake my head a little, and then refocus them once again, anxious not to miss too much. I watched the stern and focused musicians, and I studied the synchronized jerkings of their torsos as they all contributed the parts “Fatum” had written out for them. I have always been one of those people moved to tears by things like a live orchestra, but I’ve never been comfortable in that emotionally volatile role. I usually aim for a pensive (and less conspicuous) expression, which I feel I am pulling off, until the space behind my eyeballs grows too hot to control; at this point, I usually lose the battle with my emotions. Fifteen minutes into the performance of “Fatum” that night, the burning in my eyes won, and I let the tears drip down over my cheeks, disturbing the make-up I had applied so carefully in preparation for our sophisticated night on the town. I suddenly wished I were in the cheap, student rush seat I was usually in for concerts like this one, in one of the anonymous back rows of the balcony above us. These seats, so near the stage, make me feel more self-conscious about my strong reactions; even though I know no one is watching me, I can’t help but feel on display, and more anxious than usual to hide my emotional responses.


Early November, 1893: Despite his usual efforts to self-medicate his minor sicknesses away, Tchaikovsky seemed unable to dispel the unprecedented mixture of diarrhea, vomiting, increasing weakness, and pains in the abdomen and chest that struck him that November. His brother insisted on summoning a doctor, who grew deeply concerned upon examining the patient.


November 6, 2010: When the applause for “Fatum” died down, Chad Hoopes took the stage. Craning my neck to watch Hoopes glide out in front of the orchestra, violin and bow filling his outstretched hands, the woman seated in front of me suddenly caught my eye. She was so small that her head barely cleared the back of her seventh-row seat, which is perhaps why I hadn’t noticed her in my initial observations of the theatre and the audience around me. Her hair, wispy and white, whirled over and under itself, was held in place at her crown with a pearl-encrusted clip that looked like it had been worn on nights like this for the last forty years. There were other, simpler, pins inserted discreetly at the top of her elegant chignon, flawless like Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These other pins became visible to me only when the woman’s neck suddenly arched toward the ceiling, pressing her head back and out of the way, forcing it to drape over the back of her seat, where it lolled left, and then right, and settled dead center, directly in front of me.

On display in front of us glowed guest soloist Charles Hoopes, engaged in the sensational display of musical prowess that is Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Deemed unplayable for its first three years by many violinists in Tchaikovsky’s day, the seventeen-minute first movement had sweat cascading down the front of sixteen-year-old Hoopes’ concert blacks. At the movement’s end, he stooped down to snap up the black towel he’d dropped at his feet sixteen minutes prior, when he had walked in front of the orchestra, settled his violin beneath his chin and his bow out in front of him, and dipped his head in a demure hint of a nod for the conductor. Grateful for the temporary pause in his playing, Hoopes rubbed at his ruddy cheeks and at the corners of his shy grin with the towel, gripped in his right hand along with his bow.

The audience released lungfuls of air that had been held hostage in the backs of their throats during the movement’s frenzied last moments, and popped up all around the dark house. This was our standing ovation for a teenaged virtuoso, and his first movement, the “Allegro moderato.”

A moment into the standing ovation, the woman in front of me was helped to her feet by the man beside her. I hovered—neither standing nor sitting—above my chair, darting my eyes back and forth between Chad Hoopes, his towel, and the woman in front of me.

The trio of twenty-somethings behind me remained seated, heads propped up by virtue of elbows on armrests. As the audience clapped on, as Chad and the conductor smiled and looked from one another to the audience, and back, the woman in front of me dropped downward, and the man knelt down at her head. Any sounds made by their movements were drowned out the thundering applause, but in my mind, the room went suddenly silent.

The woman sitting to the right of the fallen lady whipped out her cell phone and crouched at the woman’s feet. A tuxedoed gentleman from the end of my row used one arm to leap over the row of seats, disappearing from view with the rest of them. My hands grabbed instinctively onto the back of the woman’s chair, in the only outward show of concern or involvement my body seemed capable of producing in the moment.

Onstage, Chad Hoopes raised his towel in acknowledgment of the enthusiastic applause pouring up at him from over 2,000 upright bodies. The house seated itself again, and the musician readied his instrument and nodded at his conductor. Tchaikovsky had written an intentional pause—though perhaps not space for such a lengthy standing ovation—between the first and second movements, but it was already time for the second movement to begin.


If she was still conscious, she must have hated lying there in her shimmering black velvet evening dress, her hairpins digging into the back of her head against a floor that hadn’t been cleaned thoroughly in who knows how long. Lying there in an aisle thousands have walked on, in the midst of rows and rows of us, over 2,000 bodies now towering even further above her—out of our seats, most of us—beating our palms together in a furious uproar. This was an emergency—a public collapse—due to what? Did she know the cause? A preexisting condition or a sudden breakdown of the anatomical systems meant to keep her upright? Will she live, and if she does, will her life be able to continue as before?

At the start of the concert, she had been just another an audience member, one among many dressed to the nines and settling into a cushioned theatre seat and enjoy a pleasing evening of music. A mere half hour later, motionless in her black attire, on the floor, in the darkness, perhaps she lost touch with who we all are, what we were doing there, with our dark, formal outfits and explanatory programs. Conscious or not, in that moment she experienced the ultimate, eternal swoon, where those in attendance stand five or six feet above her, clad in black, surrounding her body, flat on its back, carefully dressed in the loveliest outfit she owns.

Thus settled, horizontal in the total darkness of the cold, hard floor between theatre rows, perhaps she was aware of the new movement, the change of pace, which had taken place in the theatre around her. No longer accompanied by the booming sounds of the orchestra behind him, the solo violin wept.

This, the concerto’s second movement, was the beginning of what the program referred to a “sweeping presentation of the main theme,” where the soloist instantly steals back the attention with a wailing performance on its own. For me, however, the movement merely served as an aching, somber accompaniment to hidden workings of the group huddled in row seven around the fallen audience-member.

Another six minutes passed—the duration of the second movement, “Canzonetta: Andante,” for Chad Hoopes on stage. Although this middle movement was shorter, and soulfully slow, Hoopes had already spent nearly thirty minutes with his violin, jerking his torso front and back, hopping from left foot to right, his whole body acting in accordance with the musical pyrotechnics the concerto requires. His face, too, became a dance of shuddering grimaces and shameless, pink-cheeked pleasure; his eyes fluttered between half-open and shut—betraying an admirable lack of self-consciousness, in spite of having over 4,000 eyes following his every move.

The blazing white lights had left his thick tawny hair damp and tousled, and his face shining with sweat, but when the second movement ended he opted not to plunge downward in search of that black towel at his feet. The audience remained motionless, silent, and not yet ready to move out of our funereal trance. But there was no pause for us to digest what we’d just witnessed, there wasn’t even a moment for the musicians to rest and stretch their exhausted violin- and bow-filled arms. With less than a beat of silence to separate it from its heart-wrenching predecessor, the enlivening third movement, “Finale: Allegro vivacissimo,” had to begin.


Early November, 1893: Despite his mental and emotional preoccupations with fate, and the endless possibilities for tragedy that littered life, it became clear to his doctors that Tchaikovsky had been handling his own physical health and hygiene with little care. Like many in his day, he was reckless, even, drinking water in Moscow restaurants and at home without boiling it, even though cholera ran rampant. As the day wore on, Tchaikovsky’s condition worsened. His body jerked with spasms, and his head and limbs turned blue as his temperature dropped to dangerously low levels.


November 6, 2010: As Hoopes began this eight-and-a-half minute demonstration of all things brisk and vivacious, as its name insists, the seventh-row middle-aged woman with her cell phone made her way down her row to the theatre door. In the lobby, she called an ambulance and notified the building’s staff of what has happened, or what might happen, to the tiny woman—her mother, perhaps?—with whom she’d been sitting.

When the house lights powered on for intermission, a noticeable chunk of the seventh row was missing. I took a brisk walk around the lobby with my patient boyfriend, moved outside, walked the perimeter of the building, and stopped in my tracks when I saw an ambulance, emergency lights flashing, parked just outside the entrance. The space around it was empty for the moment, but my mind supplied it with the older woman and the emergency crew that had either recently filled it, or would fill it soon. The next day, my mom will tell me she’s so glad she doesn’t react to things—things like music, perhaps, or a scene such as this—the way I do, with tears and a wealth of mental reflection that does no one, myself included, any real good.


Early November, 1893: After diagnosing Tchaikovsky with Asiatic cholera in its severe stage, the composer’s doctors began emergency treatments in attempts to combat his increasingly desperate state. His body was massaged constantly, and he was given injections of musk and camphor, according to the medical recommendations of the period.  In response to these treatments, Tchaikovsky’s condition appeared to improve dramatically.


November 6, 2010: Back in the lobby, the intercom began its dinging warning that it was time to head back to our seats. On the way into the theatre, Matt and I bumped into the trio of twenty-somethings—two guys and a girl. I recognized one of them from high school, and went through the obligatory chitchat (“What have you been up to for the last seven years, do you like your life, etc.”), when all I could think about was the woman and the ambulance outside. “Yeah, it was pretty crazy,” one of the guys sighed when I asked if they’d seen what had happened. “I heard some people in the lobby saying they’d heard it was a stroke. I don’t know, but the ambulance showed up, either way.”

I had spent the entire intermission trying to hide the tears in my eyes and the trembling in my legs, so I was taken aback by his bored tone. Still, I had to admit that it was a much more logical reaction than the one I’d been experiencing. After all, he knew her as well as I did, which is to say, not at all.

I imagined myself tearing past the twenty-somethings and running around to the front of the theatre, reaching the back doors of the ambulance just as they slammed shut.

“Wait—” I would stutter, panting to the paramedic as he opened the door to the front seat. “Is she going to be okay?”

He would look at me, perplexed by my presence, annoyed, eager to move on to the next stage of his work.

“She was sitting right in front of me. Is she going to be okay?” I’d ask again. Maybe he’d notice remnants of tears on my face and laugh at my overreaction to the fate of a woman I was hardly connected to at all; maybe he’d take pity on me and say she seemed to be stable and that I shouldn’t worry; or that the truth was no, it didn’t look like she wouldn’t be okay after all. Whatever fate had befallen her, it seemed clear I would never know it, because I stayed inside the theatre and sat through the second half of the performance, although I couldn’t tell you what pieces the orchestra played or how the audience reacted to them.


A decade after the premiere of “Fatum,” Tchaikovsky wrote the Violin Concerto in D major that served as accompaniment for the collapse of the woman sitting in front of me. Around the time of this concerto’s premiere, Tchaikovsky committed his dismal thoughts on fate to paper, in a letter to his patroness: “This is Fate, the fatal power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealously provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds—a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head, that poisons continuously the soul.”


Early November, 1893: Tchaikovsky’s seeming return to health was short-lived. His kidneys soon gave out, and all methods, save one, failed to improve his condition. The only treatment that remained to be administered, which was also considered to be the most effective, was immersion of the patient in a hot bath. When Tchaikovsky was fourteen, his mother had fallen ill with cholera; she had died during this exact treatment. Thirty-nine years later, the composer and his family refused to allow the procedure to be performed on him.


November 6, 2010: The romantic in me likes to think that, whatever the situation that led to and resulted from the woman’s collapse at the concert that night, any lover of classical music might dream of such a dramatic and beautiful loss of consciousness, if they had to experience such a thing at all. Perhaps I’m just a breath away from such a Victorian swoon myself, hypersensitive as I am to experiences of that nature. But I know this isn’t why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her, and her exit from the theatre and, perhaps, the world. On a physical timeline, I am at the end populated by the twenty-something trio, with their logical disinterest in the entire situation. Everything I’ve learned from movies, books, and those around me says that young people are supposed to think we are invincible; we’re supposed to have little (or no) fear of our own mortality, and we are certainly not supposed to be preoccupied by the many ways the lives we take for granted can be cut short. If my life lasts as long as I have every reason to assume it will, logic tells me I’m miles away from the space on the timeline occupied by the elegant white wisps of pinned hair that hit the aisle of the seventh floor that night.

I’ve always felt the presence of another timeline—one I might call, to use Tchaikovsky’s word to stand in for what I cannot yet express, Fate—hovering over me. This one, shaped, perhaps, like Damocles’s sword, is much less predictable than the slow, expected deterioration of the physical body. It’s also much more constant in my mind as a reminder of the unforgiving conclusion brought nearer every day, its pull stronger still as the days lived successfully grow in number behind us. As Tchaikovsky wrote it, and as I understand it thus far, this is not a simple fear of death, but a constant poisoning of the soul. He sought catharsis by formatting his morose preoccupations onto sheet music, elevating them from mere mental turmoil to art to be played and shared with audiences for centuries to come. In my case, it works merely as a paralysis, this fixation of the lack of life ahead of me or the ones I love, often rendering me motionless, with nothing to do but leak its impact out my eyeballs.


Early November, 1893: Just two days after cholera overwhelmed his system, Tchaikovsky began to lose hope that he would ever get well. Without functioning kidneys removing diseased urine from his system, his body weakened further due to blood poisoning and intestinal paralysis. At this point, the composer’s doctors overruled his superstitious fear of the hot bath, but perhaps the treatment was administered too late, or perhaps it never would have worked at all. Either way, even the hot bath did nothing.


Early December, 2010: The next event at the philharmonic was its annual holiday concert, complete with an audience sing-a-long. I handed the box office attendant, a volunteer who looked about my age, the last ten dollars in my wallet in exchange for a cheap ticket in the nosebleed section and the chance to ask her if they ever heard anything from the woman who had—it had been said—had a stroke at the last concert.

The attendant’s eyebrows rose at me, and I worried I’d overstepped my boundaries as a mere audience member. “Sorry if this is inappropriate, I’ve just been thinking about her a lot so I thought I’d check to see if she was okay,” I babbled, explaining more than I need to, attempting to fill her silence.

“No, it’s just—” she interjected, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She shrugged.

I realized that even if I saw her walking into the concert beside me, I wouldn’t recognize the seventh-row woman I’d spent the last month thinking about, as I had seen her only from behind, and in a darkened theatre. She could have been any of the elegant, elderly patrons shuffling inside the theatre around me. I will probably never find out whether the woman lived past that night or not, or whether she would see another season of the philharmonic.


November 6, 1893: Tchaikovsky fainted repeatedly throughout the day. Delirium overtook him. As night fell, his pulse grew weaker. It became more difficult for him to breathe. His brothers, nephew, and doctor were present, but Tchaikovsky was hardly conscious in his final moments, a mere five days after cholera began to wage its battle against his body. His lungs filled with fluid, his heartbeat slowed, and Tchaikovsky died at three o’clock that morning. A brief death announcement ran in the morning newspapers, just hours after Tchaikovsky’s death. His body was made available for viewing in the apartment where he had died. An attendant to the body was stationed near its head, constantly touching its nose and mouth with a scrap of cloth soaked in disinfectant, rendering the face of the composer available for departing kisses from his final visitors.


Early December, 2010: I couldn’t think of anything to say next to the box office attendant, but I felt myself nod dumbly in response. My eyes must have looked lost, because the box office attendant powered through my silence: “But I guess that means we haven’t heard anything!” She grinned. “No news is good news, right? That’s what I’ve always thought, anyway.” I forced my head to give a more purposeful nod and smile at her through the box office window. This is a philosophy that makes sense; one I wish would resonate more deeply with me than Tchaikovsky and his ever-present sword of Damocles. “Happy holidays,” she offered, and waved me off, as I was holding up the line behind me. With the good cheer she’s been trained to pass on to us all with our tickets, she called out to me as I walked away: “Enjoy the show!”