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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: Itzhak Perlman, conductor & violin/Bach, Mozart, & Tchaikovsky Dec. 4 - 6, 2008
© Aaron Grad

Nine days after the debut of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky died suddenly. Almost immediately, the public raised questions that still percolate to this day: Was this swan song intended as a suicide note? Did Tchaikovsky really die of cholera, and if so why would his funeral have featured an open casket and the risk of spreading the disease? Or was he condemned to take his own life when an "honor court" uncovered his homosexuality? The final symphony, with its suggestive nickname (conceived by the composer’s brother, Modeste) and hints of programmatic or even autobiographical references, seemed too saturated with personal emotion not to hold some clue to this great artist’s untimely death.

Whether or not the symphony hides some specific message, it is clearly a work of deep and turbulent pathos. The first movement opens ominously, with a slow introduction featuring bassoon and low strings. This rising and falling motive, adopted by the strings and then the winds at the launch of the agitated Allegro non troppo section, returns insistently in various keys and orchestral textures. In contrast, the second theme enters as an island of repose and nostalgia, flipping the first motive’s contours to first fall and then rise before reaching equilibrium. This gentler mood provides a broad conclusion to the expansive movement. The following Allegro con grazia features the irregular time signature of 5/4 (five quarter-notes per measure), resulting in a "limping" waltz that flows quite smoothly despite the asymmetrical meter. The third movement scurries in a triplet pulse, eventually reaching a jolly march tune that starts in the clarinets and passes to the violins. The momentum builds to a rousing finish, which, if this were any other piece, could be the showstopper. But the full and poignant chords that open the finale announce immediately that the symphony will return to the brooding mood established in the original introduction; a moment featuring bassoon and strings confirms the link. The melody attempts a long climb into a more optimistic resolution in D major, only to snap back into B minor. The low brass section contributes a mournful knell, followed by one last recap of the descending melody that fades down to a whisper by the cellos and basses. Thus begins Tchaikovsky’s eternal silence.