Tchaikovsky – Symphony N. 6 in B-minor op. 74 “Pathetique”

by Max Derrickson

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky      (b Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, May 7, 1840; St. Petersburg,Russia, November 6, 1893)

Symphony N. 6 in B-minor op. 74 “Pathetique”
1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
2. Allegro con grazia
3. Allegro molto vivace
4. Finale (Adagio lamentoso  Andante)

As the very first notes of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Symphony No. 6 are played, we are drawn into a most extraordinary world.  Beginning with the bassoon crawling up out of sobering darkness, it’s apparent that this symphony is aptly named – pathetique – full of sorrowful emotion and pity.  The brooding yet simple opening theme calls on fate and tragedy, and tragedy would soon befall Tchaikovsky in death just nine days after its premiere; a death reported to be from cholera but widely suspected to be suicide.

“Fate” was something with which Tchaikovsky was obsessed and described as “…the fatal force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, and which watches jealously to see that our bliss and happiness are never complete and unclouded…”   That sentiment seems to fill this symphony, and indeed, a steadily descending melodic motif that Tchaikovsky associated with fate in many of his works can be heard in each movement of the Pathetique.

The day after its premiere, the “Pathetique” subtitle was given to the work by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste.  The composer wrestled over a possible subtitle as “Programme” (a work following a story line) alluding to his cryptic description of the work to a friend as a symphony “with a programme, but with a programme of a kind which remains an enigma to all – let them guess it who can.”   In retrospect, it’s tempting to suggest that the pathos of this work, the composer’s mysterious program, and the curious circumstances of his death, mean that the Pathetique was written as his own requiem, a theory often proposed.  More likely is that the emotional grief that pours forth in the Pathetique was a natural manifestation of Tchaikovsky’s highly discordant life, and a further honing of the kind of heart-on-his-sleeve expression found in so many of his works.  Whatever its source, the poignancy and power of the symphony make it one of the towering achievements of Western music.

The longest of the four movements by far, the beginning Adagio brings us through some incredibly heart wrenching moments, culminating in the strings and low brass bleeding a variant of the opening theme as they sink down to the very depths of despair, at last giving way to a massive timpani roll and smashing of the tam-tam.
[. . .]

What comes next in the Allegro can grazia is a lilting waltz and is another one of Tchaikovsky’s great achievements.  Written in the meter of 3 + 2, or in 5/4, so clever and seamless is the writing that the listener almost won’t recognize its off-balance-ness.  The waltz does indeed dance away with us from the first movement’s despair, quite gracefully, but with a slight limp.  The third movement is, in a way, also a departure from pathos; [. . .]
having ultimately led us to the edge of a precipice.  Fate awaits us over that rise; it’s been expecting us.

The last movement brings us back to the sorrowfulness of the first, but in a more resigned way.  Softer are the themes in the strings from the first movement, with fragments from the second, and with the horns bleating out a call to weary souls, but the mood is rather desperate.
[. . .]
This ending movement, quietly sobbing, bleak and broken, ebbing away from hope, seems to bury all happiness.