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Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, Op. 74

About the Work

Pyotr Tchaikovsky
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Quick Look Composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" plus Nicola Benedetti, violin, & Leonard Elschenbroich, cello, play Brahms's Double Concerto Jun. 5 - 7, 2014
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Tchaikovsky died in 1893, at the age of only 53. His death was long attributed to theaccidental drinking of a glass of unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, but that theory has been questioned in recent years with the alternate explanation that he was forced to take his own life because of a homosexual liaison with the underage son of a noble family. Though the manner of Tchaikovsky's death is incidental to the place of his Sixth Symphony in music history, the fact of it is not.

Tchaikovsky conducted his B minor Symphony for the first time only a week before his death. It was given a cool reception by musicians and public, and his frustration was multiplied when discussion of the work was avoided by the guests at a dinner party following the concert. Three days later, however, his mood seemed brighter and he told a friend that he was not yet ready to be snatched off by death, "that snubbed-nose horror. I feel that I shall live a long time." He was wrong. The evidence of the manner of his death is not conclusive, but what is certain is the overwhelming grief and sense of loss felt by music lovers in Russia and abroad as the news of his passing spread. Memorial concerts were planned. One of the first was in St. Petersburg on November 18th, only twelve days after he died. Eduard Napravnik conducted the Sixth Symphony on that occasion, and it was a resounding success. The "Pathétique" was wafted by the winds of sorrow across the musical world, and became-and remains-one of the most popular symphonies ever written, the quintessential expression of tragedy in music.

In examining the Sixth Symphony, whether as performer or listener, care must be taken not to allow pathos to descend into bathos. It is virtually certain that Tchaikovsky was not anticipating his own death in this work. For most of 1893, his health and spirits were good, he was enjoying an international success unprecedented for a Russian composer, and work on the new Symphony was going well. He wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov in February that he was composing "with such ardor that in less than four days I have completed the first movement, while the remainder is clearly outlined in my head." Tchaikovsky was pleased with the finished work. "I give you my word of honor that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy, in the knowledge that I have written a good piece," he told his publisher, Jurgenson, as soon as he had finished the score in August. The somber message of the music was, therefore, seems not to have been a reflection of the moods and events of Tchaikovsky's last months.

The music of the "Pathétique" is a distillation of the strong residual strain of melancholy in Tchaikovsky's personality rather than a mirror of his daily feelings and thoughts. Though he admitted there was a program for the Symphony, he refused to reveal it. "Let him guess it who can," he told Vladimir Davidov. A cryptic note discovered years later among his sketches suggests that the first movement was "all impulsive passion; the second, love; the third, disappointments; the fourth, death-the result of collapse." It is not clear, however, whether this précis applied to the finished version of the work, or was merely a preliminary, perhaps never even realized, plan. That Tchaikovsky at one point considered the title "Tragic" for the score gives sufficient indication of its prevailing emotional content.

The title "Pathétique" was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his elder brother, Modeste. In his biography of Peter, Modeste recalled that they were sitting around a tea table one evening after the premiere, and the composer was unable to settle on an appropriate designation for the work before sending it to the publisher. The sobriquet "Pathétique" popped into Modeste's mind, and Tchaikovsky pounced on it immediately: "Splendid, Modi, bravo. ‘Pathétique' it shall be." This title has always been applied to the Symphony, though the original Russian word carries a meaning closer to "passionate" or "emotional" than to the English "pathetic."

The Symphony opens with a slow introduction dominated by the sepulchral intonation of the bassoon, whose melody, in a faster tempo, becomes the impetuous first theme of the exposition. Additional instruments are drawn into the symphonic argument until the brasses arrive to crown the movement's first climax. The tension subsides into silence before the yearning second theme appears, "like a recollection of happiness in time of pain," according to American musicologist Edward Downes. The tempestuous development section, intricate, brilliant and the most masterful thematic manipulation in Tchaikovsky's output, is launched by a mighty blast from the full orchestra. The recapitulation is more condensed, vibrantly scored and intense in emotion than the exposition. The major tonality achieved with the second theme is maintained until the hymnal end of the movement.

Tchaikovsky referred to the second movement as a scherzo, though its 5/4 meter gives it more the feeling of a waltz with a limp. This music's rhythmic novelty must have been remarkable in 1893, and the distinguished Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick even suggested that it should be changed to 6/8 to avoid annoyance to performer and listeners. Charles O'Connell, however, saw the irregular meter as essential to the movement's effect, "as if its gaiety were constantly under constraint; directed, not by careless joy, but by a determination to be joyful."

The third movement is a boisterous march whose brilliant surface may conceal a deeper meaning. Tchaikovsky's biographer John Warrack wrote, "On the face of it, this is a sprightly march; yet it is barren, constructed out of bleak intervals, and for all the merriness of its manner, essentially empty, with a coldness at its heart."

The tragedy of the finale is apparent immediately at the outset in its somber contrast to the whirling explosion of sound that ends the third movement. A profound emptiness pervades the finale, which maintains its slow tempo and mood of despair throughout. Banished completely are the joy and affirmation of the traditional symphonic finale, here replaced by a new emotional and structural concept that opened important expressive possibilities for 20th-century composers. Olin Downes dubbed this movement "a dirge," and, just as there is no certainty about what happens to the soul when the funeral procession ends, so Tchaikovsky here leaves the question of existence forever hanging, unanswered, embodied in the mysterious, dying close of the Symphony.

Wrote former Boston Symphony Orchestra program annotator Philip Hale, "The somber eloquence of the ‘Pathétique,' its pages of recollected joy fled forever, its wild gaiety quenched by the thought of the inevitable end, its mighty lamentations-these are overwhelming and shake the soul."