Written by Ronald Comber

Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op.74 “Pathetique”
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

There have been only a very few compositions in the history of music which have been as well loved as the Pathetique Symphony of Tchaikovsky.  From almost its first performance, it has been regarded as adorning one of the highest pinnacles of Romantic art.  Tchaikovsky himself, writing to his brother, confessed that he felt somewhat embarrassed by the great depths of emotion that he had wrought in the work.

And yet, when we look back on his life at the time of the Pathetique’s composition, superficially at least, his affairs were nearer to being in order than they had been in years.  Tchaikovsky’s international reputation was at its summit; his foreign tours were immensely successful, and he was honoured in both 1892 and 1893 by the stern academicians of the Academie Francaise and by the University of Cambridge.  For all that, he was in a state of extreme depression throughout the last years of his life, from which he could only rise with effort.

The concept behind the Pathetique appears to date from 1892.  On a slip of paper, Tchaikovsky scrawled – “the ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE.  First movement – all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity.  Must be short (Finale DEATH – result of collapse).  Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”  Of course, in practise the concept soon changed; by February 1893 the format was as we know it today.  The sketches were completed in April, then other work intervened.  In May, also, he had to fulfil engagements in England, as well as receive his honourary Mus.D. from Cambridge (other recipients at the same occasion were Saint-Saens, Boito, Bruch – whom he detested, and Edvard Grieg).  When Tchaikovsky finally returned to Russia, he was able to spend an uninterrupted month in completing the score.  By late August he was satisfied.  The first performance, to general public indifference, was on October 28, 1893.  Tchaikovsky died nine days later, on November 6th.

An interesting sidelight has recently been thrown on Tchaikovsky’s sudden demise.  For many years it was popularly accepted that he died of cholera, the result of drinking unboiled water.  This has been discovered to have been a fabrication, though the new explanation seems to be a trifle sensational by comparison.  According to Soviet musicologist, Alexandra Orlova, in October of 1893, a Russian nobleman wrote a letter to the Czar, accusing Tchaikovsky of a liaison with his nephew.  A civil-servant, Nikolay Jacobi, managed to get control of the letter, and fearing that the ensuing scandal would affect the honour of all who were from the same school as Tchaikovsky, took it upon himself to institute a court of honour – composed of six of Tchaikovsky’s old school-mates.  He was summoned before this court on October 31st, and apparently acting on their decree, he committed suicide by arsenic poisoning some days later.  The truth was naturally concealed; and on the strength of the cholera story, the Pathetique, played for a second time on November 18th, 1893, was an immediate success.

The Sixth Symphony is not only Tchaikovsky’s most deeply moving work, but it is also his most successful essay of the symphonic form.  The first movement, marked Adagio – Allegro non troppo, emerges from the lowest depths of desolation into a sudden urgency – a powerful striving theme which has for a strong contrast one of Tchaikovsky’s most glorious legato melodies.  After an extended exposition of the second theme, the return of the first theme in the development comes with the force of an emotional thunderstorm.  Only at the very end of the movement does peace come in a final benison.  The second movement, marked Allegro con grazia, is in the form of a waltz and trio.  The waltz, given a touch of eccentricity by being in 5/4, is of great beauty, complemented by the trio, which explores some of the harmonic tensions of the outer movements.  The third movement, marked Allegro molto vivace, grows from delicate beginnings into a spectacular march.  The orchestration is a marvel of range and of subtlety, and serves as the perfect antecedent to the plangent harmonies of the finale.  The last movement, marked Adagio lamentoso, with its two descending melodic lines repeated obsessively throughout and its devastating harmonic progressions, travels through sorrow, anguish and despair to eventually return to the underworld from which the Symphony emerged.