Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique'

Another program note:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1841-1893)

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

Adagio – Allegro non troppo
Allegro con grazia
Allegro molto vivace
Finale (Adagio lamentoso – Andante)

In February 1893, Tchaikovsky wrote to tell his brother, Anatoly, that a new symphony had come to him just as he was starting out for Paris in 1892. He said it would have a program, ‘but of the kind which remains an enigma to all’. There would also be much that is novel in the work: ‘For instance, the Finale will not be a great Allegro, but an Adagio of considerable dimensions.’
Responses to this work have sometimes been affected by the fact that it is nicknamed the Pathétique and also the fact that Tchaikovsky died nine days after conducting the St. Petersburg premiere in October 1893.
But such myths collapse against a broader consideration of the facts. Tchaikovsky, in fact, was happy at the time. He told his publisher that ‘I have never felt such self-satisfaction, such pride, such happiness as in the consciousness that I really am the creator of this beautiful work’. And pateticheskaya, the nickname in Russian, does not mean ‘arousing pity’ so much as ‘passionate’ or ‘emotional’. It was a name suggested for the second performance after Tchaikovsky’s original nickname ‘Program Symphony’ had failed to excite listeners adequately at the premiere. Attached to the second performance, after Tchaikovsky’s death, it couldn’t help but look like a harbinger of doom.
Other rumours surround this work. Tchaikovsky is supposed to have been outed as a homosexual just after the first performance, and ordered to kill himself by a jury of peers from his alma mater, the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. Recent evidence by writers such as Alexander Poznansky disputes this. Homosexuality was no big secret in Tsarist Russia, and was not uncommon in Tchaikovsky’s circle. Tchaikovsky’s death was most likely less scandalous: death by cholera after drinking unboiled water.
The ‘Pathétique’ is impressive, however, shorn of all the extra-musical legends. Tchaikovsky conjures a spectacular tapestry and one that can take hold of listeners who are not familiar with the conventions of classical music. (Note: ‘conjures’. As itemised above, there was plenty to suggest that Tchaikovsky was portraying grievous emotions, not venting them.)
After a mournful opening melody played by bassoon, the exposition builds in colour and excitement. Only then does the secondary melody appear, a full-bodied melody tinged with sadness and regret. More than half way through, we hit the development section: not just a technical dividing point in the structure audible to those familiar with sonata form, but an obvious change of scene, denoting crisis. A quote from the Orthodox requiem for the dead would have had significance for Russian listeners. The development is finally bridled in a passage of intense emotion which leads back to the recapitulation. If we are in any doubt that Tchaikovsky intends to depict suffering we need only note the baleful appoggiaturas of the trombones before the nostalgic melody returns and the movement closes with slightly consolatory hymn-like tones.
Critics have often derided Tchaikovsky’s symphonic credentials because his instinct for ballet music was never far away. Here, the second movement feels like a waltz, although it isn’t: it’s in 5 beats to the bar rather than the traditional 3.
A scherzo-like mood introduces the third movement, a vigorous march. Tchaikovsky the dramatist is again at work here, setting the audience up to experience with him the final tragedy. The climax invites exultant applause, but we are then launched all the more tellingly into the lamentoso last movement.
One explanation for Tchaikovsky’s extraordinary popularity is the drama, indeed pageantry, of his music. Few composers speak so immediately to an audience. Listeners can come away from this work with a sense of having lived through a wrenching emotional journey. And why not? Little music prior to Mahler covers as much emotional territory as the ‘Pathétique’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2012

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's Fatum, published 17 Sep 2013
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger A Ring Adventure, published 29 Sep 2013

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