Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #6 in B minor Pathetique Opus 74 (1893)

Program Notes Home

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893)

  1. Adagio--Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro con grazia
  3. Allegro molto vivace
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

A musical conservative, the Russian Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a nervous, unhappy, hypochondriac and closet homosexual. A gifted and sensitive child, by the age of six he could read both French and German and was called “porcelain child” by his parents. Tchaikovsky, a student of law, did not become serious about music until he turned 21.

In 1877, he married Antonina Miliukova. As a closet homosexual, the marriage proved impossible for Tchaikovsky, and he attempted suicide by jumping into a river to catch pneumonia, but fortunately survived. Patroness Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and music lover was the other woman in Tchaikovsky’s life. Though she supported him for 13 years (1877—1890), she refused to meet him in person, and would communicate only via post. In 1890, under the pretense of bankruptcy, she discontinued his annuity, and cut off all relations with him, refusing to answer his letters. The bitterness this caused lasted until his death . . . his last words were her name and “the accursed one."

Tchaikovsky’s music is intensely personal. With the exception of his D major Polish symphony, all of his symphonies are in melancholy-sounding minor keys. He was the only major symphonist to do this. The Symphony #6, lugubrious and dolorous, is the apotheosis of Tchaikovsky’s intimate orchestral style. “[It is] the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose,” he said.

It was premiered in St. Petersburgh, under his direction on October 28, 1893. It was titled A Program Symphony, although the program was intentionally withheld. Tchaikovsky had poured his soul into the work: “I often wept bitterly while composing it,” he confessed. “I love it as I have never before loved one of my musical offspring.” Despite the passion he poured into the music, its initial reception was cold. Perhaps this was due to Tchaikovsky’s conducting. His sensitivity was such, that if he suspected the orchestra was bored, he was unable to work. In fact, he was so scared as a conductor that he feared his head would fall off! Tchaikovsky literally grasped his chin with his left hand while conducting to assure himself his head would remain attached.

After the symphony’s indifferent reception, Tchaikovsky began worry about the cryptic title. His brother, Modest suggested a new title, patetichesky (pathetique) to which Tchaikovsky gladly acquiesced. The next day, he suffered misgivings and called his publisher, Jurgenson with instructions write only “to [Vladimir Davidov]—#6 Composed by P.T.” Jurgenson, with a flair for the dramatic, ignored the composer’s request. A week later, November 6, 1983, Tchaikovsky was dead. The reason for his death is hotly debated. It is clear that he imbibed unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, and died of cholera. However, it is not clear whether he did so intentionally. Many believe that he committed suicide, for reasons linked to his sexuality. This is given credence by his melancholy and the earlier suicide attempt. Regardless, the Pathetique symphony has the aura of his death about it. The spirit of the dead composer seems to live on in it, eternally dying.

Although Tchaikovsky was not one of “the mighty five” Russian nationalist composers, his music was described as “profoundly Russian” by Stravinsky. This, in conjunction with his lifelong difficulty with form, helps to explain the unorthodox structure of the Pathetique. Tchaikovsky allows the music to be ruled by melody to a great extent.

The first movement, Adagio—-allegro non troppo is in a skeletal sonata form. The second subject recalls Don José’s Flower Aria from Carmen, a favorite opera of Tchaikovsky’s. The fierce development has a theme from the Russian Orthodox Requiem at its climax, further hinting at death. This movement is unrestrained, the dynamic level goes all the way down to pppppp. The Allegro con grazia is a waltz in 5/4. It is divided into 3+2, which makes it perpetually off-balance. The whole idea of the main section is contained in the opening 2-bar phrase. Instead of a slow movement, Tchaikovsky delivers an Allegro molto vivace: another scherzo! This march in scherzo form has only one main theme, despite formal divisions marked in the score. These middle “dance” movements serve as a sort of Intermezzo, which is framed by the outer Pathetique movements. The last movement is the shocker. Instead the expected rousing Allegro finale, the last movement is an Adagio lamentoso. The symphonic development that we expect is also missing. Two contrasting melodies are played, then repeated, without the intervention of a development. The first theme, mourning and plaintive, is at odds with the mutable second theme. The notes of the first theme are split between the first and second violins, making their respective lines interdependent. The function of the second theme evolves through the movement. It begins as a consolation, rises to a proclamation, and when it returns, rather than lifting the first theme’s gloom, reinforces it. The lower strings slowly fade out to a ppp close. The symphony ends in a whisper.