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Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’

1. Movement: Adagio - Allegro non troppo

00:00                                                                                                  Tchaikovsky begins his sixth symphony from 1893 with the deep registers of the bassoon. He distributes the bass part differently from usual: it plays out in not just one but several instrument groups.

Passion and disappointment are the focus of Tchaikovsky’s last work. The exact interpretation of the work is food for much speculation, as was Tchaikovsky’s death shortly after the premiere.

01:55 Tempo accelerates
The tempo speeds up and the strings play the main theme. The melody comes directly from the motif with which the bassoon opened the symphony.

02:37 Ascending, then descending scale                                                                             With the multiple scales, as heard here, Tchaikovsky cleverly forges this work, full of contrasts, into a single entity. Conductor Leonard Bernstein calls it ‘the brotherhood of themes’.

03:13 Falling melody
The woodwinds — first the clarinets, then the oboes — play a descending melody, which is completed by the strings. This continuous switching of the different instrument groups is typical of Tchaikovsky.

04:39 Melodious and tender theme
Now we hear the second theme, one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known melodies. The famous flower aria from the opera ‘Carmen’ was the inspiration behind this tender, melodious theme.

05:40 Flute solo and scales
The multiple scales in Tchaikovsky’s work do not impress his colleague Gustav Mahler: ‘You cannot hide the lack of inventiveness and emptiness’, was his harsh judgement.

Tchaikovsky died of cholera. The bizarre rumour that he intentionally drank a glass of contaminated water led to the implausible interpretation that this work was meant to be his musical suicide note.

07:09 Violins take up the lilting melody again                                                                                          Some critics see Tchaikovsky's alleged struggle with his homosexuality as the key to this piece. Or are the wistful melodies, that we now hear, a universal lament for love?

The composer’s own words don’t provide any information about the programme of this symphony: ‘Let them rack their brains about a programme that should remain a mystery to all.’ And that’s exactly what happened.

08:49 Clarinet solo
In this clarinet solo, the melody descends over two and a half octaves. The solo ends low and as quietly as possible: the composer wrote the dynamic ‘ppppp’ (pianissississimo).

09:36 Whole orchestra very loud: Allegro
A new passage begins: from the almost silent ‘pianissississimo’, the entire orchestra breaks out into a very loud ‘fortississimo’. None of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies has such strong contrasts.

10:42 Trombones short requiem melody
This is a clue for critics who see a death message in this work. This trombone melody, consisting of seven notes, comes from a requiem: ‘Rest with the saints, Christ, the souls of your servants.’

11:34 Ominous ascending melody in strings
Depression was not talked about in Tchaikovsky’s day. When asked if he would write a requiem for a deceased, he replied that he was ‘not in the mood to compose such a thing.’

12:30 Blaring trumpets
Tchaikovsky’s letters, in which he writes about his work on this symphony, reveal that he was never so satisfied and mellow as when writing his saddest work.

13:30 Majestic melody
The original Russian title of this symphony – ‘Pateticheskaya’ – might have been better translated as ‘passionate’ rather than ‘Pathétique’, which is also confirmed by the melody now playing.

14:27 Second, sweet theme
Tchaikovsky emphasises the renewed return to the second, sweet theme with a pause. This has led some critics to regard the individual passages of this work more as loosely connected parts.

On 28 October 1893 Tchaikovsky arrived in Saint Petersburg in good spirits for the premiere of the symphony, which he himself conducted. The orchestra was not as enthusiastic as the composer himself.

17:05 Brass chorale
The plucking (pizzicato) of the strings accompanying the sublime brass, descends into the depths. Tchaikovsky often used these kinds of falling figures in his operas as a sign of annoyance.

2. Movement: Allegro con gracia

The second movement is a waltz in an unusual time signature: five four, instead of the usual three four. A similar waltz can also be found in Tchaikovsky's ‘18 Piano Pieces’, also from 1893.

Tchaikovsky was a master of the waltz. The atmosphere is reminiscent of his ballets, such as the well-known flower waltz from ‘The Nutcracker’. But it is impossible to dance to this slow waltz.

01:43 Plucking strings
The composer also makes creative use of scales in this movement: you can hear the plucking of the strings (pizzicato) in a fast scale.

02:36 Timpani on every beat
The middle section, the so-called ‘trio’, contrasts with the light start of this movement. The timpani sound like a heartbeat on every beat, with this heart occasionally beating more vigorously.

This symphony follows a blueprint in which, according to Tchaikovsky, ‘the essence is life. First full of energy, then love, disappointment and finally dying away.’ In this movement, you can hear the love.

04:50 Opening melody
The pounding heart of the trio can no longer be heard. We return to the beginning of the movement and the waltz continues.

06:00 Plucked scales
Unusually, Tchaikovsky was very satisfied with this work: ‘I have never in my life been so satisfied with myself, so proud, so happy in the awareness of having written a good work.’

Again, Tchaikovsky is inventive with scales: rising in the strings and falling in the woodwind. Finally, we hear the trio’s grating melody one last time.

3. Movement: Allegro molto vivace

The waltz of the second movement is followed by a march. This lively movement (Allegro) begins with a continuous, excited motion, a ‘moto perpetuo’, in the strings.

01:20 Striking rhythm: Rum tum-ti Tum tum
A striking rhythm – Rum tum-ti Tum tum – becomes dominant and underlines the marching character.

01:49 Clarinet solo: second theme
The clarinet plays the light-footed second theme. The melody sounds satisfied, almost cheerful. Perhaps the symphony is less tragic than is often suspected.

02:56 Repetition of second theme by clarinet
In contrast to what was often the case, Tchaikovsky had a positive opinion of his work even after the premiere. The audience held back their ecstatic reactions until after his death.

In Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies, fate is ultimately defeated. In this sixth, on the other hand, there is never really a fight. Fate seems inevitable.

05:00 Music swells up and then calms down again
Whenever it seems as though triumph has raised its head, as here, the head is then retracted. Disappointment shines through, just as Tchaikovsky describes in his earlier draft.

06:07 Cymbals, blaring brass
The sounds of the pounding brass are grating. Tchaikovsky often uses this kind of ‘dissonance’ (grating sounds). According to him, they have ‘the greatest power’ because they express our passions and pain.

07:00 Music swells, rolling
The entire orchestra finishes in a passionate outburst with brass and percussion. Is that the end of the symphony already? Certainly not: it’s an illusory victory.

08:02 Falling scales
Falling scales prevail at the end of the movement. Tchaikovsky leaves us with a sense of disappointment. A good listener now knows that this march is not triumphal.

4. Sentence: Adagio lamentoso

What a transition to this slow and poignant movement! A series of descending notes from the strings makes it clear: this is a lament. About an impossible love?

Tchaikovsky had an amorous relationship with his nephew Bob Davidov, to whom he dedicated this symphony. For some, this is another clue that connects this work with Tchaikovsky's love life.

02:30 Horns, followed by melody
Three deep, pounding heartbeats sound from the horns: ta-daam, ta-daam, ta-daam. This is the prelude to a soulful melody that seems to come directly from Tchaikovsky’s heart.

03:30 Repetitions of melody
The melody is repeated, becoming louder and louder. First, the trombones mimic the strings. Finally, the timpani are added and drive the music to a loud climax.

Tchaikovsky begins and ends this symphony in a minor key. This is not a journey through night to the light, but from darkness to gloom. By this means, he subverts the familiar cycle of a symphony.

With this intimate, personal end to the symphony, Tchaikovsky paved the way for many other composers. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, among others, follows the same pattern.

07:05 Muted Horns
Music grates again: the muted horns hiss. Together with a quiet strike on the tam-tam, they bring bad news. Are these the last twitches of a heart that has understood?

07:33 Chorale trombones and tuba
Dignified and polyphonic, three trombones and a tuba play their melody, which continues to fall, eventually disappearing into the depths, like a box slowly sinking into a grave.

The music dies away hauntingly. ‘Death stares you in the face, it says nothing and you can’t hide from it.’ (Klimotovski). For Tchaikovsky, this proves true just nine days after the premiere of this symphony.

Text: Eline Levering. Translation: Catharina Wüst