Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, Op. 74
About the WorkComposer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© 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."
Pathétique Symphony, byname ofSymphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, final composition by Peter Tchaikovsky. Called the “Passionate Symphony” by the composer, it was mistranslated into French after his death, earning the title by which it became henceforth known, Pathétique (meaning “evoking pity”). The symphony premiered on October 28, 1893, according to the modern calendar, though at the time Russia still used the old form, by which the date was October 16. It was the composer’s last work; nine days later, he was dead, and observers have long debated whether the often gloomy nature of the work reflected Tchaikovsky’s own emotional state at the time.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 is forever associated with the tragedy of his sudden death. In the last year of his life, 1893, the composer began work on a new symphony. Sketches dated from as early as February, but progress was slow. Concert tours to France and England and the awarding of a doctorate of music from Cambridge cut into the time available for composition. Thus, though Tchaikovsky could compose quickly when the muse was with him, it was not until the end of August that he was able to complete the new work. Its premiere, with the composer himself on the podium, was given in St. Petersburg two months later, on October 28.
The work seemed unusually somber, particularly in its finale that, both in tempo and dynamics, fades into nothingness. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest suggested at the time that the work ought to be called by the French word “pathetique,” [the Russian equivalent is “pateticheskoy”] meaning melancholy, and Tchaikovsky supposedly agreed, but if Modest or anyone else bothered to ask the reason behind the symphony’s gloomy mood, Tchaikovsky’s answer is lost to time. His only remembered comment about the new piece is, “Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work.”
Nine days later, on November 6, the composer was dead. His family blamed cholera, but physician’s statements were contradictory and friends were skeptical. Cholera, they insisted, was a disease of the poor, almost unheard of amongst the upper classes. Surely Tchaikovsky would have known how to prevent exposure. In addition, as the composer’s friend and colleague Rimsky-Korsakov commented in his own memoirs, the highly-contagious nature of cholera would have precluded the open-casket ceremony that actually occurred. Why, Rimsky asks, were mourners allowed to kiss the departed goodbye? On that question, Tchaikovsky’s family remained determinedly silent.
At the time, the mystery remained unresolved. However, evidence that came to light in 1978 suggests that Tchaikovsky spent his last months distraught over a barely concealed scandal in his personal life. The homosexuality that, throughout adulthood, he had fought to conceal was about to become public knowledge. Some have suggested that he committed suicide in the hope that ending his life would also silence the rumors. It is entirely possible, for deep depressions were common to him. Furthermore, he had attempted suicide at least once before. Perhaps this was another attempt that was also meant to fail, but instead tragically succeeded.
Substantially the longest of the symphony’s four movements, the opening Adagio - Allegro non troppo begins with a sober theme presented by solo bassoon and double basses; having started in the orchestra’s lowest range, Tchaikovsky ensures that listeners will grasp the gravitas that he seems to have in mind. Quicker tempos and stronger dynamics will follow, along with a gently rhapsodic string theme, though phrases borrowed from the Russian Orthodox requiem further reinforce the ominous nature of the music.
The second movement Allegro con grazia is gracefully dance-like, though being in the irregularly used 5/4 meter, it deeply infuriated conservative observers, who apparently would have preferred something closer to a waltz. However, these pages of almost interrupted rapture serve perfectly for offsetting the grimmer tensions of the first movement.
With the third movement Allegro molto vivace, Tchaikovsky sets out with a scherzo-like scampering of strings and woodwinds, interrupted at times with a bold marching spirit. Gradually, that march takes charge, providing the most overtly optimistic moods of the symphony. Powering as it does to the movement’s closing chord, it occasionally surprises inattentive listeners into bursts of applause, on the mistaken notion that this must be the end of the entire work.
Indeed, ending with excitement would be a typical way of building a symphony, but that is not what Tchaikovsky had in mind. His Finale: Adagio lamentoso - Andante offers slow tempos, long phrasing, and intense musical sighs and sobs. For every phrase that rises, three more fall in despair, and it is in the most funereal of moods that the symphony fades to its close.
Musicologists with psychological leanings have tried to associate the possibility of suicide with the fact of the somber symphony. They see parallels between the composer’s increasing anxiety and the symphony’s fading conclusion. Certainly, other composers have written minor key symphonies without taking their own lives, but the usual expectation was that a symphony, even one in a minor key, would end with energy, if not with optimism. Yet Tchaikovsky’s final symphonic statement slowly dissipates into ever-deepening gloom. It is, some suggest, the musical voice of suicidal depression.
However, such an analysis ignores an historical fact. Tchaikovsky began work on the piece nearly a year before its premiere, long before the rumors started. At that time, he wrote to his nephew that the new symphony would conclude with what he called “an adagio of considerable dimensions,” which is certainly the manner in which the work ultimately concludes. If this composition is evidence of a troubled mind, then that mood had persisted for many months. What is more likely is that the symphony was simply the ultimate expression of Tchaikovsky’s life-long obsession with dark emotions.