Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique

Notes by TŌN cellist Chas Barnard

Tchaikovsky’s Final Work
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is a work that is shrouded in mystery. Nine days after conducting the premiere, Tchaikovsky died of an unknown cause at the age of 53. Most scholars attribute his death to cholera from drinking unboiled water, but many suspect he committed suicide to escape scandals surrounding his presumed homosexuality. While we may never know for sure, this emotionally turbulent work provides a window into Tchaikovsky’s heart and mind during the final months of his life.

The Passionate Symphony
Pathétique, the symphony’s infamous subtitle, was suggested by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest following the first performance. Pathétique translates in Russian to “impassioned” or “emotional,” not “pathetic” as an English translation might suggest. While Tchaikovsky initially embraced the nickname, he quickly changed his mind and preferred the name he chose for the premiere: The Programme Symphony. But alas, some things just stick. Tchaikovsky never clarified the “programme” he depicts, leaving scholars and critics to speculate over what he meant. Some believe the work is a requiem for himself. Others think it is a declaration of forbidden love for his nephew, Vladimir Davidov (whom he affectionately called “Bob”), to whom the symphony is dedicated.

The Music
In the first movement, the opening Adagio quietly emerges with double-basses accompanying a mournful bassoon solo. This section eventually gives way to the primary character of the movement, a nervous Allegro non troppo. Throughout the movement, Tchaikovsky transports us in and out of this anxious mood to a sensuous second theme, a Russian liturgical chant, and a climax of utter despair. The cellos open the second movement with a lovely waltz melody with an asymmetric meter that is counted “one, two, one, two, three.” The third movement features a sizzling scherzo leading to a glorious march finale. Many first-time listeners may think this is the end of the piece, but it is not. Considered by many to be a genius form of compositional irony, this false triumph pokes fun at some of his earlier works and highlights the tragedy of the actual finale. The finale is an Adagio marked “lamentoso,” which means “lamenting” in Italian. This movement is full of yearning melodies, eventually arriving at a desperately passionate climax. The climactic moment is short-lived before descending into a dramatic strike of the tam-tam and dying away into nothingness as the piece ends.