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

Composed by

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

1840-1893

Orchestration

3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, violins, violas, cellos, basses


I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso – Andante

Composed 1893.
First performance: October 28, 1893, St. Petersburg. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, conductor.

The life of Peter Tchaikovsky was simultaneously one of the most successful and one of the most tragic in all of music. He created a respected and envied body of works which included six symphonies, three piano concertos, a violin concerto, ten operas, dozens of orchestral works, numerous songs, chamber music compositions, and three of the world’s best-loved ballets. As a composer and conductor, he toured extensively and met with acclaim wherever he went. He was also an extraordinarily melancholy man whose fits of depression led to several attempts at suicide. When he traveled, he became homesick for Russia. The moment he returned, he began planning his next trip.

It is generally accepted that the root of Tchaikovsky’s personal problems was a deep-seated guilt about his homosexuality, a situation which fed his inability to share his innermost feelings. This situation was temporarily assuaged while he carried on a fourteen-year relationship — entirely through correspondence — with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. Each served as a fantasy figure for the other. Their bond was a common sexual orientation. Nadezhda provided a generous annual stipend, and each poured out their deepest feelings in volumes of letters. Finally, in 1890, von Meck abruptly terminated the subsidy and broke off all relations, apparently bored with the situation. It was at this point that Tchaikovsky began to suffer a final collapse of emotional health.

After a successful tour of the United States, England, and Germany in 1891 and 1892, Tchaikovsky returned to Russia in a state of extreme depression. At previous similar moments in his life, he had turned to symphonic composition as a way of recovering. This time, he took up sketches for a symphony begun in 1891, but decided to turn them instead into a third piano concerto. Finally, in the spring of 1893, he immersed himself in the composition of his Symphony No. 6 in B minor. At first, he simply called it Program Symphony. His brother suggested the title Tragic, but later recommended Pathétique, which Peter accepted with enthusiasm.

The Pathétique exhibits a moody darkness at almost every turn. The introduction is scored using the darkest of all orchestral colors, a bassoon in the low register accompanied by divided double basses. When the first theme finally appears, it is in the divided violas and cellos. The famous second theme is presented by muted violins and cellos. This darkness and despair is contrasted by a ferocious development section which includes a short quote from the music of the Russian Orthodox Requiem Mass. A simple waltz functions as a seemingly cheerful second movement. It is, however, written with five beats to the measure — in effect, a waltz with a missing beat every other measure. The third movement is an energetic march, which functions as one last attempt to relive the joys of life before plunging into the despair of the finale. The last movement is certainly Tchaikovsky’s most explicit expression of his personal torment.

The symphony, which the composer considered to be his finest work, was only politely received at its premiere on October 28, 1893. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died. His death was officially attributed to cholera, but rumors and theories have persisted over the years, driven in part by the romantic notion of the sixth symphony as a musical farewell, as to whether the infection was accidental or suicidal.

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