This article explores the concept of death in the musical legacy of the great composer Tchaikovsky. Its understanding is envisaged through the analysis of Kochubey’s performance scene and the dramaturgy of the development of the individual scenes.

The aim of this article is to reveal the particularity of the poetics of Tchaikovsky’s opera through the prism of the concept of death. The development of the opera’s plot, intonation, and thematic complexes, as well as the semantics of thematic forces and tonalities, led the composer to create a ‘quiet’ finale atypical of nineteenth-century opera.

The new religious-philosophical perspective in the study of the concepts of Tchaikovsky’s operas has broadened the understanding of their tragic themes, their singularity of genre and style, the motives behind the plot collisions and the spiritual and moral nature of the conflict and the images of the protagonists, as well as revealing the textual and subtextual semantic planes at the verbal and musical levels.

The approach to the study of opera (specifically, Mazeppa in the light of its tragic concept) used in the article is based on the method of conceptual analysis, which has made it possible to present the musical text as a multi-layered semantic score through the prism of poetics as a system of means of expression.

Key words : concepts, Mazepa opera, death, performance, Tchaikovsky, ‘quiet’ finale.


  1. The concept as a semiotic term


Musical text has an astonishing capacity: it can be interpreted repeatedly, which makes the process of learning it endless. It cannot be denied that an opera score is never ‘all written out, since it is always more than what is written down’. This ‘more’ lies in the realm of meaning, which, according to Michael Bakhtin, ‘is always slightly veiled, hidden’ and cannot be reduced to ‘purely logical or purely substantial relations’.[1] The semantic structure of a work is generally polyphonic and requires understanding, a kind of decoding on the part of the perceiver.[2] The semantic interpretation of a musical text resulting from this process depends on the objectives set by a researcher when reflecting on its content, based on the set of different cultural perceptions and spiritual values he manages, as well as on the aspect he chooses to study.

The notion of ‘concept’ implies an integration of meanings that are not only vast and holistic, but necessarily axiologically based, i.e., they relate to Truth, Beauty, and the Divine. Meaning is always discovered, found, and recognised by someone based on cultural experience, historical roots, and a particular context within which the concept itself is considered. This term is used when it is worth highlighting the importance and significance of a particular cultural constant as a particular issue, to reconstruct those entities that we come across in everyday life without thinking about their meaning a priori.[3]

Today, the term ‘concept’ is used to describe certain cultural constants that sum up man’s personal mental and spiritual experience and perceptions of the world. The concept – we might say a condensation of culture in the human mind; a form in which culture accesses the human mental world. And, on the other hand, the ways in which a person penetrates a culture and, in certain cases, exerts an influence on it. Present in the human mind, concepts are not limited to thought, but they are also an experience to be lived, because they represent a whole synthesis of notions, knowledge, and associations. A concept is therefore first and foremost a mental phenomenon of a generalising nature, constituting a mental entity, an idea, a concept.

Concepts are flexible, polyphonic semantic structures that can also be realised in musical discourse. Concepts have become the master unit for measuring the mutual conditioning between the creation of meaning and the creation of style in the process of interpreting musical texts. As the subject of diverse emotions and passions, of a clash of different world views and philosophies, concepts create a platform not only for empathy but also for the discovery of the essence of each of them, which in turn requires an in-depth analysis of the poetics of opera, of narrative and compositional logic, of dramaturgical meaning, of the particularities of the setting of separate key scenes, of the dramaturgy of images, of the semantics of leitmotivs and tonalities.

The idea of an honourable death for the protagonist was the only real solution for many composers: Verdi’s La Traviata, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Death is not at all positive in these operas, but there is something sublime about it all the same. It is as if the soul of the protagonist were being purified of the sins committed in the past and that death was a relief through the act of forgiveness. A phenomenon of this kind has been called a ‘silent tragedy’ by music specialists.

The subject of our study is the concept of Death, which reflects the semantic aspects of[4] the multi-faceted concept sphere of the opera Mazeppa (1883), a fundamental link in the evolution of Tchaikovsky’s worldview and artistic style. Whereas at the beginning of the composer’s career the emphasis was on ‘intimate’ lyrical and psychological dramas with chamber qualities, in the last third of the nineteenth century Tchaikovsky’s operas embodied complex tragic and philosophical subjects that gave rise to more monumental works.[5]

The concept of Death, in its basic sense of ‘end of life’, relates to abstract concepts and generally has a negative spectrum of evaluation, which interacts, as a rule, in correlation with the concept of Life and represents in the context of their relationship less a binary opposition than a holistic philosophical representation, a phenomenon of perception. In philosophy, human mortality is seen not so much as a natural phenomenon, but rather as a social phenomenon that requires rational perception and reflection. Consequently, the concept of Death makes it possible to bring together several levels in the study of a musical text from a chosen perspective: the level of content, the level of expression and the level of interpretation.

  1. Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa


Throughout his career, Tchaikovsky was interested in death and dealt with it more than once in his music. ‘I am not so religious as to regard death as the beginning of a new life, nor so philosophical as to reconcile myself with the abyss of nothingness into which I must plunge myself’.  This piece of the composer’s letter is by no means an isolated example of the way in which the concept of Death was a recurring subject of his religious and philosophical contemplation. It would be no exaggeration to say that in the various genres of Tchaikovsky’s work, the theme of death is a cross-cutting one.

Tchaikovsky chose the peaceful ending of Byron’s tragedy Manfred, whose death is described with the powerful sound of the organ. The Manfred Symphony (1885) concludes in a light major calm. The sounds of the orchestra fade and dissolve into infinity, just as life dissolves and disappears. In the lower register, however, we still hear the persistent motif of the Day of Wrath, one of the parts of the Mass for the Dead. The finale of the symphony is the victory of the hero, who has already repaid his sins through earthly suffering and has chosen his own end, desiring neither God’s dubious forgiveness nor the devil’s praise. С’s a symbol of the courage we should have in facing death. Both Byron, in his drama, and Tchaikovsky, in his symphony Manfred, gave a striking example of how a personal human tragedy turns into a great philosophical generalisation from which people derive their wisdom according to their feelings and concepts.

In Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893), the trombones and tubas introduce the chords, setting the stage for the grand finale, accompanied by the delicate timpani strokes. A captivating pentatonic waltz emerges, adding a fresh and novel element to the composition. The composer deliberately chose such an atypical size: the grace of a pure waltz seemed out of place in the atmosphere of a symphony imbued with the mood of grief, despair, and the powerlessness of a solitary man’s struggle against the inexorable laws of life.

The finale begins. There is absolutely no doubt that the Adagio lamentoso is about death. We could not even have doubted it, even if Tchaikovsky himself had not explained that this was the case. ‘The way everything ends’, – Pyotr Ilyich told his cousin, and on this point, we agree with his words. The Symphony No. 6 (1893) conveys the overwhelming and inconsolable grief of death, portraying tragic endings, shattered dreams, and forsaken ideals. In the subsequent Andante sections, the haunting melodies of the brass and strings evoke a sombre and mournful atmosphere. The orchestra’s final outbursts, overpowered by the chilling resonance of the tam-tam, exude a sense of despair. Symbolically, the triplets played by the double bass represent fleeting moments of fading life. The last six bars are barely audible, akin to the dying heartbeat of a fading existence. It signifies the end, a poignant conclusion to it all.

The complex metaphysics of the tragic problems of religious experience at the time is not only apparent in Tchaikovsky’s particular vision. It can also be ‘read’ in the operas of the 1880s. At the time of Mazeppa’s creation, Tchaikovsky already had artistic and psychological experience of death scenes, such as Joan of Arc’s leap of faith in the opera The Maid of Orleans (1879).

The opera Mazeppa occupies a special place among lyrical works that reproduce the situation of death. Its special feature is ‘an abundance of horror and blood’, according to the critic and friend of the composer Laroche.[6] Mazeppa’s moral tragedy is essentially based on the background between God and man, between command and permissiveness, between fidelity and betrayal.

The first scene of the second act takes place in prison and focuses on the image of Kochubey. Maria’s departure against her father’s wishes has put him in a position of severe moral conflict.  He has two avenues of revenge open to him: revenge for his daughter and revenge for the ‘tarnished’ honour of his family. Given that Christian morality has never justified revenge, we must recognise the binary motivation at the heart of Kochubey’s vengeance. In the first case, Kochubey could, on his wife’s advice, ‘shake Poltava’ and ‘with his right hand thrust’ a dagger into Mazeppa’s heart. This action could be considered honest, frank and even, in a way, noble.

However, the hero decides to embark on another, more sophisticated project: to write a denunciation to Peter the Great, which would expose the hetman’s criminal and treacherous intentions. At the same time, as a loyalist of the Tsar, he was well aware of the order of Peter the Great’s time – whistle blowers were handed over to the hetman for reprisals. Kochubey realised that he was voluntarily signing his own death warrant. In carrying out his plan for revenge, he reveals himself not only as an offended father, but also as the bearer of noble sentiments of truth and justice.

Kochubey is ready to answer for his actions before God. Languishing in prison, he prepares for the priest’s visit and appears as a hero who has in fact resigned himself to the idea of death, awaiting his final confession and communion. The vocal component of the piece is characterised by a measured recitative, devoid of any exaggerated emotional affectation. The intonations of the psalm are emphasised through a chordal structure that draws from the traditional functional relationships found in Orthodox chant. (example 1).

The scene with the mother (act 2, scene 2) represents Maria’s first emotional upheaval when she receives the news of her father’s imminent execution. In her final moments, in a state of affect close to madness, Maria asks her mother for forgiveness. Tchaikovsky’s call, ‘Forgive me’, testifies to the heroine’s tragic awakening and her confession, and underlines the borderline state of her personality with an ascending tritone leap (the reduced fifth ‘B’-‘F). After witnessing her father’s execution, Maria is not only overcome by shock, fear, and compassion, but by a real inner tragedy, a tragic experience. The truth revealed about Mazeppa and about herself leads her conscience to a particular form of catharsis – spiritual liberation, epiphany, and revelation in the midst of madness.

Considering Kochubey’s fate and his life’s journey, which is undoubtedly informed by faith (remember the penitential prayer on his deathbed in the execution scene), it’s worth emphasising that this hero deserves compassion.

  1. The concept of death and the dramaturgy of Kochubey’s execution scene


In order to demonstrate his power and underline his status as an independent sovereign with the power to control people’s destinies, Mazeppa decided not to kill Kochubey secretly in prison. The hetman needed a ‘scenario’ in which his power would triumph – he opted for a public execution.

From a dramaturgical point of view, the opera’s execution scene is multifunctional. As the final point of Act 2 and one of the climaxes of the drama in general, it is practically an element of the ‘golden ratio’. Not only does it complete the development of the main characters and radically transform the image of the heroine according to the narrative logic of the plot, but it also brings together the fundamental concepts of the opera – freedom of choice and Maria’s sinful love.

Maria suffers another shock and loses consciousness as she witnesses her father’s execution. The quiet scene of Maria and Lyubov appearing breathless at the scene of the execution defines the psychological heart of the opera, as well as representing a magnificent dramaturgical device, which shows the mental evaluation of events from the heroines’ point of view. Having met her mother and witnessed her father’s execution, the heroine experiences not only fear and compassion, but also the deepest shocks of self-awareness and guilt – a true spiritual tragedy.  The truth revealed about Mazeppa and herself leads her consciousness to a particular form of catharsis – spiritual liberation, epiphany and revelation in the midst of madness. In this context, catharsis is mainly about the heroine’s liberation from the mad love that has captured her, from her own destructive passions that have caused her moral blindness.

The ‘protagonists’ of this execution are, first and foremost, Kochubey and Iskra, and the people who act as eyewitnesses. Mazeppa, who leads Kochubey’s execution, is his spectator.  But among the characters involved, we see another metaphysical hero embodied in death, who takes us into the realm of the sacred, the transcendent. The expectation and the unfolding of the execution determine the semantic logic of the dramaturgy of the entire scene, forming a particular profile of the tragic.[7]

The entire third scene of Act II is dedicated to this most significant episode in the opera. It is a true unit with a continuous flow. The composition of the numbers here is purely conventional, as the ‘folk scenes’ and the finale follow one another. Tchaikovsky achieved a high degree of historical verisimilitude with this musical composition, when its architecture gradually reproduces the traditional structural model of the execution: from the people’s wait, the executioners’ arrival at the execution site, the detachment of hired Cossacks accompanying Mazeppa and Orlik, Kochubey and Iskra in person surrounded by guards and monks, to the preparation for the execution, the condemned men’s penitential prayer and the carrying out of the sentence.

In the execution scene, a crowd assembles in a field near the scaffold, eagerly anticipating the commencement of the massacre of the ‘noble and wealthy gentlemen.’ The execution itself is a grand mise en scène, captivating the collective imagination. Within the context of an operatic work that includes an execution scene, we witness the emergence of an artistic concept known as ‘theatre within theatre’. Here, we observe a distinct ‘stage’ represented by the scaffold, ‘actors’ embodying the executioner and the victims, and an audience that becomes part of the scene. The moment is further enhanced by appropriate musical accompaniment, featuring brass bands and drumming.

In Mazeppa, Tchaikovsky portrayed the people as a living organism, perceiving the performance primarily as a grand spectacle. In so doing, the composer, by developing the libretto of the execution scene from the point of view of musical poetics, succeeded in reflecting the emotions of crowd psychology: pity, horror, and laughter. Before Kochubey’s prayer, they will define the emotional and psychological component of the opera’s third scene.

If we consider the ‘popular scenes’ as the first stage in the development of events, we find two contrasting sections in terms of content and structure. The first, that of the chorus, which has a three-part reprise structure, characterises the image of the crowd flocking to the place of execution with curiosity and fear of the arrival of Mazeppa and the condemned men. The entire episode is based on the intense instrumental development of the authentic Ukrainian song Гей же, тай журба мене зсушила, which is set out in the orchestral introduction (example 2). Introduced into the context by the composer to create a local colour, it serves as a background to the chorus part, where we hear the features of the male and female voices: ‘Is it coming soon? Are they coming or not? You can’t hear anything… Oh, we’re so impatient! We can’t wait any longer! What’s the hurry? You came to see such a thing, so wait, don’t hurry! My heart sinks with fear!’[8]  The lively dialogue between the male and female voices is set to the sound of a dance song.

During the unfolding of the choral episode, a profound emotional tension permeates the atmosphere, intensified by Tchaikovsky’s skilful use of imitative techniques. Particularly noteworthy is the choir’s expressive and impactful recitative, which effectively conveys the perplexity felt by the crowd. An example of this is the incorporation of a folk song in the diminished fourth key (from ‘D♭’ to ‘G’), which, through repetition, creates a lament-like effect. The emotional intensity reaches its peak with the addition of orchestral second parts and a dominant organ theme, heightening anticipation for the climactic final section of the episode. It begins with a fiery cry from the people, a prayerful exclamation of ‘Oh, God, have mercy on us, spare us, Lord!’, which sounds against the background of a reprise of the quotation song in the orchestra. The lines to be followed by the people in the chorus ‘Redoubtable, redoubtable is the Tsar’s wrath, redoubtable, terrible is Mazeppa’s judgement’, are then developed. The powerful orchestral tutti, the harmonic tension, the high dynamic level and the contrasting polyphony of the male and female voices give the climax a character that is at once fiery, pathetic and dramatic, as well as underlining in a colourful way the ‘state of mind’ of the crowd feeling ‘a lively curiosity mixed with a feeling of pity’[9] and fear.

The third and main section of the execution scene is the ‘procession to the executioner’. New characters are introduced one by one: the executioners, the hired Cossack detachments, the Cossack chief, and the ‘unfortunate captives’ themselves. Their entrance is marked by the second orchestral march leitmotif of Mazeppa, whose exposition and development determine the three-part structure of the entire section. The composer particularly emphasizes the detailed depiction of the crowd in this scene.

During the development that follows the march theme, the orchestral score intensifies, highlighting the approach of the executioners, the hetman, and his army to the place of execution. The reprisal of this theme signifies the final point of the procession. As the hetman ‘crosses the stage on horseback’ (a note in the score), its sound becomes an apotheosis, radically changing its semantic character. It ceases to be a descriptive theme of the participants in the approaching procession and takes on a connotative meaning of the ‘triumph of the power of the executioner-hetman’ and his despotism.

The remarkable fff creates a triumphant march theme, with the resounding assault of brass instruments amplified in the reprisal and full chorus tutti.[10] The people cry out furiously: ‘The hour of terror is coming! The hour of execution has arrived! Here come the condemned!’ (Example 4). The tumultuous responses of the chorus do not stand out for their rhythmic and intonational variety; they are based on a descending five-note movement in the low third range, rhythmically following the formula of a march rhythm. Equally remarkable is Tchaikovsky’s ability to utilise the expressive possibilities of dynamics, choral tessitura, and orchestral tonalities in the reprisal, thereby achieving two climactic points.

In my opinion, public execution is not merely a punishment that takes away a person’s life given to them from above. It is a proclaimed death, with the day and hour announced to the condemned in advance. Moreover, contrary to the hypothesis of a silent death, it necessarily presupposes two perspectives of perception that differ in their semantic content and hold the interest of their correlation with the concept of the tragic. For an external individual, an execution, even if it is their own, is a death that is foreign to them, and its visualisation can have a tremendous emotional and psychological impact. For the condemned, the anticipated death is their ‘personal apocalypse’[11], when the sacrament is performed, the soul acquires a new individual spiritual experience by looking into the eyes of eternity. The fourth section, which opens with Kochubey’s mournful recitative ‘Almighty God, we stand before You, confessing our final prayer of repentance’, occupies a special place in the overall composition of the execution scene. Tchaikovsky, using the peculiarities of the musical chronotope, has introduced the episode of prayer at the centre of the choral fresco. It is not just a lyrical-philosophical centre, a static zone, a pause in the action where characters are given close-ups. It is as if the composer invades the inner world of the characters. In this case, the heroes’ appeal to the Almighty can be considered both as an act of repentance spoken aloud and as a prayer uttered in silence. Kochubei’s prayer ‘escapes’ the dynamic concept of time, the framework of immediacy, and the realm of real life. It is completely embedded in a different continuum – a spiritual continuum, which drastically changes the angle of perception of the events in the finale and allows us to apprehend the execution not in its social aspect (through the eyes of the people), where it appears as a distressing spectacle, but in its religious and philosophical dimension.

What is death? ‘For the wages of sin is death’, says the apostle Paul.[12] Death is an eternal problem of human existence, one that everyone faces at some time or another. Every human being is ‘a creature confronting death throughout his or her life’.[13] Death is the only thing that takes away a person’s freedom of choice. It therefore contains the very essence of our deprivation of freedom. The metaphysical tragedy of death is expressed in the fear of the unknown, in the inconceivable feeling of losing oneself, one’s macrocosm and one’s microcosm. The fear of death, in turn, is a result of disbelief or lack of faith, of religious doubt.

Death is an eternal problem of human existence. Its tragic perception creates a feeling of fear of the unknown, of the unimaginable sense of loss of self, which can only be overcome by faith and prayer. For the believer, death is not a tragedy because faith forms in man an unshakeable spiritual foundation, a humility in the face of the inevitable, because ‘rebellion against death is opposition to God’.[14] Furthermore, to be ‘at the height of the perception of death’ requires ‘extraordinary spiritual tension’ and ‘spiritual enlightenment’.[15]  These states are reached through sincere prayer. Tchaikovsky attached great importance to this moment: he incorporated an episode of prayer into the execution scene, raising the heroes facing imminent death above the banality and vanity of life.

In musical terms, Tchaikovsky emphasises the sacred and ritualistic nature of the moment with a set of elements (see example 5) typical of the circle of Orthodox chants. These elements include sung recitative with elements of psalmody, strict diatonicism in natural minor, harmonic alternation, ‘Orthodox motion’ in harmony (I-VII-III), choral structure, and three-chord singing; dominance of pure string tones in the instrumentation, complemented by harp sounds in the second stanza.

In the last moments of life, at the frontier of two worlds, facing eternity, the heroes show the people the spiritual strength and firmness of faith in God, which makes it possible to overcome the tragedy of death. It is significant that the people make the same ‘attempt’, crying out to God: ‘Hear the prayer of repentance, forgive their sins, accept them, Lord, where there is no sadness, no sighing and no suffering of earthly existence’.[16]

The cathartic zone extends to the last part of the scene, which is rich in events: the condemned men climb onto the scaffold, the commotion on stage, the figure of the executioner swinging his axe over the heads of the victims, the introduction of Lyubov and Maria, who fail to catch Kochubey alive in time. The cry that rang out as soon as the axes were brought down after the execution is particularly evocative and impressive: ‘Forgive them, O Lord! Forgive them, Lord!’[17]

The pathos of this moment is reinforced by the brief orchestral coda. It produces an incredibly powerful effect, not only due to the strong orchestral tutti and the extreme dynamic level (the score includes four forte markings). The theme of the coda is based on the expressive sequence of the second stanza of Kochubey and Iskra’s penitential recitative, which is driven by an intensifying rhythm (see example 6).

Tchaikovsky, always attentive to the ‘orchestral semantics’, the choice of different timbres dictated by the poetics of the work, entrusts the theme to the piercing sound of trumpets and piston cornets. In terms of timbre, the instrumental prayer theme, traversing the thickness of the tutti space, somehow appears in the sense of the tuba mirum, calling souls to the judgment of God.