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Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, known as the Pathetique, was composed in 1893, and had its premiere that fall. The symphony is the last of Tchaikovsky, who died nine days after its premiere. A memorial concert of the work was performed 21 days later. This work of Tchaikovsky evokes much mystery as it is programmatic, however Tchaikovsky did not divulge the program. Theories of its intended program lie in its dedication, to his nephew (with whom he was said to be in love), and also in the fact that his death soon followed, evoking the theory that the symphony was a musical suicide note. Regardless of Tchaikovsky’s intent, the symphony is filled with emotion, suffering, and passion, (hence the name, Pathetique) and is at the pinnacle of music of the late Romantic period and an expression of Tchaikovsky’s inner world.
The Pathetique is composed in four movements:
I. Adagio—Allegro non troppo (B minor, 354 bars)
II. Allegro con grazia (D major, 179 bars)
III. Allegro molto vivace (G major, 547 bars)
IV. Adagio lamentoso (B minor, 171 bars)
A wide range of emotions are present, from despair to triumph, to anguish. It opens with a mournful solo in the bassoon, and in mm. 1-2, we hear the “cross-motif” for which Tchaikovsky used to reference himself and the crucifixion, as well as the concept of “star crossed lovers”. There is the familiar theme which appears at about five minutes in, full of sweeping emotion. This sublime theme is interrupted by turbulence and unrest. The movement ends peacefully, and the second movement begins with an unstable 5/4 waltz theme in the cellos. The third movement is the most hopeful of all the movements, but that ends with the fourth movement, which has its theme in its name: “lamentoso.” This is the most emotional and almost funeral-like of the movements, returning to the darker themes of the first movement.
This symphony is definitely in a completely different character than Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies, especially the previous two. The 4th and 5th symphonies were also programmatic, with the former being Fate (similar to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony) and the latter being more of a triumphant theme. The 6th is the most enigmatic and darker of two. The structures are similar, with all three having four movements.
The Pathetique is my favorite symphony of Tchaikovsky’s. From the first time I played this work, I could tell that he poured himself into this composition…I can feel his emotions: angst, despair, hope, resignation. To me this is true artistry, when I can feel the presence of the composer in the work. The fact that there is so much mystery surrounding the piece and Tchaikovsky’s death that follows adds to its poignancy. In the Romantic genre, this stands out as a piece of music that is a prime example of the Romantic ideal, because of its intense expression of emotions.
Roland John Wiley. "Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il′yich." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 29, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51766pg6