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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky   Opus 74

Symphony No.6 "Pathétique"

Symphony in B minor. 1893. Time: 43'30.
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The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on October 28 of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, under Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on November 18.[1] It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 4/16 December, under Vasily Safonov.[2]



The first drafts were completed in the spring of 1891.[3] However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript "in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create."[3] In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew:

The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.[4]

In 1893, Tchaikovsky again mentions the work in a letter to his brother:

I am now wholly occupied with the new work . . . and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.[4]

The symphony was composed in a small house in Klin, which Tchaikovsky left on October 19. He arrived shortly thereafter in St. Petersburg for the first performance, "in excellent spirits".[5] However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work.[5] Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky's brother Modest wrote, "There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played."[6]


The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Patetičeskaja), means "passionate" or "emotional", not "arousing pity". Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaja or "Programme Symphony") but realised that would encourage curiosity about the programme, which he did not want to reveal. According to his brother Modest, he suggested the Патетическая title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title,[7] but in any event his publisher chose to keep it and the title remained. Its French translation Pathétique is generally used in French, Spanish, English, German and other languages.[8]

Dedication and suggested programs

Tchaikovsky's "Cross"-motive, associated with the crucifixion, himself, and Tristan, first appearing in mm.1-2 of his Pathétique Symphony[9] About this sound Play . Tchaikovsky identified with and associated the cross-motif with "star-cross'd lovers" in general, such as in Romeo and Juliet[9].

Tchaikovsky dedicated the Pathétique to Vladimir "Bob" Davydov, his nephew.[10] While the relationship was apparently never consummated,[10] Davydov was reportedly one of the great loves of Tchaikovsky's life.[11]

The Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.[12] One such program, suggested by Tchaikovsky scholar and biographer Alexander Poznansky, is that the composer intended "to retell in music the story of his life and his that his beloved nephew would be able to share and appreciate all that he himself had gone through".[13] The symphony, Poznansky adds, embodies "the anguish of unrequited love, a conflict between platonic passion and the desires of the flesh" which was a "perennial spiritual delemma reformulated by the Romantics ... the secret and proud struggle with one's own sensual appetites for the sake of the beautiful and the good".[13]

An interpretation of the Pathétique "as a tragic Eros-symphony"[14] is suggested by Timothy L. Jackson, a member of the music theory faculty at the University of North Texas, in his book Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), published by Cambridge University Press. Jackson writes that people reportedly knew of Tchaikovsky's relationship with Davydov, but because this relationship concerned a taboo subject, the Pathétique's program could not be stated explicitly, even by the composer; this fact, Jackson asserts, did not stop Tchaikovsky from encoding the program musically into the symphony.[15] Tchaikovsky's view of his relationship with Davydov was, according to Jackson, highly negative, and the symphony's tragic ending represented "the demise of the homosexual lovers (Tchaikovsky and his nephew).... Whether the lovers are destroyed by others or others become instruments of their own deaths remains undetermined".[16] The suggestion of such a program has been controversial, with musicologist Richard Taruskin calling Jackson's assertions "spectacularly reckless" and the method of its author as that "of conspiracy theories".[17]

Still another suggested program has been what Taruskin disparagingly termed "symphony as suicide note".[18] Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden elaborates that, according to this theory, Tchaikovsky realized the full extent of his feelings for Davydov as well as the unlikelihood of their physical fulfillment; he therefore "poured out his misery into this one last great symphonic work as a conscious prelude to suicide. Unable to find help among his friends, he supposedly began to drink unboiled water in the hope of contracting cholera. In this way, as with his adventure in the Moscow river in 1877, he could commit suicide without bringing the attendant stigma upon his family—perhaps even without their realizing".[19] This idea began to assert itself as early as the second performance of the symphony in Saint Petersburg, not long after the composer had died. People at that performance "listened hard for portents. As always, they found what they were looking for: a brief but conspicuous quotation from the Orthodox requiem at the stormy climax of the first movement, and of course the unconventional Adagio finale with its tense harmonies at the onset and its touching depiction of the dying of the light in conclusion".[18]

Tchaikovsky specialist David Brown suggests that the symphony deals with the power of Fate in life and death.[20] This program would not only be similar to those suggested for the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but also parallels a program suggested by Tchaikovsky for his unfinished Symphony in E flat.[20] That program reads, "The ultimate essence ... of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short)".[21]


The symphony is scored for 3 Flutes (3rd doubling Piccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Bass Drum, Cymbals, Tam-tam (ad libitum) and Strings.

A bass clarinet is sometimes used to play the bassoon solo marked pppppp in the first movement, to achieve the desired dynamic level (eg a recording by the Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay).


The symphony contains four movements

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo - Andante - Moderato Mosso - Andante - Moderato assai - Allegro vivo - Andante come prima - Andante mosso (E Minor - B Minor - D Major - B Minor - B Major)
    The profound melancholy which permeates this symphony appears at once in the doleful introductory measures. It begins with only the somber voice of the double basses, playing in hushed, sinister tones. Out of the depths of the orchestral cellar, a solo bassoon presents a lachrymose subject in its lowest register, to which the violas offer a mournful reply. Some of the wind instruments sound tortuous cries before the music sinks back into an awful silence. Suddenly the violins appear with the first theme of the Allegro, a nervous, fleet-footed variant of the lugubrious introductory subject, which grows increasingly agitated as it passes on to other parts of the orchestra. The brass crescendo to a fierce, driving climax, after which the distress fades away in a long diminuendo. A last soaring gesture in the violas and a slackening of the tempo set the stage for the marvelous second theme. Here Tchaikovsky offers one of his most exquisite tunes, a passionate and thoroughly romantic melody softly introduced by the violins and cellos. The haunting eloquence of this rapturous page yields unexpectedly to a beguiling, almost sensuous mood. The flute and bassoon exchange a flirtatious scale passage over a compelling rhythm in the strings. Other instruments soon join in the coquettish refrain. But before long, the tender romantic strain reappears, richly scored and with even greater intensity than before. This time, a note of hysteria interjects as the upper strings soar over a fervent, throbbing pulse. With the passions spent, the music ebbs away in an exquisite descending passage, until the soothing voice of the clarinet tenderly croons the love song one last time over luscious chords in the strings. With a last falling scale the bass clarinet (or bassoon) rounds out the exposition in a mood of tranquil slumber. Then, without warning, the entire orchestra erupts in a palpitating shriek of fury. Thus begins the feverish development section, one of the most frenetic, even terrifying passages in all of orchestral literature. At once the strings give frenzied treatment to the first theme, marked by violent outbursts in the brass. But the raging storm abruptly subsides, and the trombones somberly intone a theme from the traditional Russian requiem service- perhaps Tchaikovsky's own premonition of death. Once again the tension returns, surging forward with wild, demoniac energy. Just when it seems that the music must surely crack under the sheer strain, the orchestra staggers to a grinding halt, and a mighty lamentation bursts from the strings, almost unbearable in its heart-rending misery. Trombones blast forth a rigid, funereal rhythm as the swirling strings plunge to the very depths of despair. With a last despondent shudder, the bellicose tragedy dissolves into another silence. But out of the gloom, a faint stirring in the low strings paves the way for an exultant final statement of the tender love theme, in all its wondrous glory. Its final refrain resounds ecstatically, supported by brass and timpani. Now the landscape is familiar- the exquisite diminuendo, followed by the gentle recollection in the clarinet. In the coda, pizzicato strings play soft, descending scales as the brass sound an autumnal chorale melody. The colossal movement comes to its final denouement in an atmosphere of quiet contentment.
  2. Allegro con grazia (D major - B Minor - D Major)
    The middle two movements provide relief from the oppressive tragedy surrounding them. The second is in the three-part form of the traditional scherzo. The cellos present an enchanting waltz tune, whose irresistible refrain inspires the woodwinds to join in the infectious dance. Tchaikovsky scores this suave melody in an undanceable five beats, which lends the music a rather charming limp. Various appealing episodes evolve a serene, whimsical atmosphere reminiscent of the composer's own ballet scores. But sobriety predominates in the trio, with a tearful, pleading melody set against sepulchral accents from the timpani. The melody becomes stretched and twisted by the awkward meter, enhancing the plaintive quality of the music. Fragments of the lilting waltz are heard before the Scherzo itself reappears, with its melody played by violins and cellos in unison. The former elegance of style once again prevails into the coda, which features a gentle interplay of motives from the earlier sections. A solemn recollection of the poignant trio melody interrupts the calm, but the movement ends on a peaceful note.
  3. Allegro molto vivace (G major)
    The third movement is again upbeat. In common time, it adheres to much more of a standard form than the rest of the work. The movement revolves around two themes, a nervous, jittery motif in the woodwinds and a majestic march originating in the woodwinds. As a march, it is very un-military. Its harmonic structure is based on the tonic and subdominant rather than the more common tonic and dominant. The jittery theme completely gives way to the march theme at the short development. Eventually, the orchestra launches into a full, triumphant chorus of the brass theme at the movement's end, often leading the audience to believe that the symphony is over. A video of a performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra clearly shows the audience applauding at the end of this movement; there have been similar audience reactions at other performances due to the spectacular coda.
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso (B minor - D major - B minor)
    The final movement immediately returns to the darkness of the first with its brooding tone and slow tempo in 3/4 time. The opening is scored unusually, the first and second violins taking turns to play the notes of the main "desperation" theme, meaning neither actually plays the melody as heard, and the same is done with the other parts. During the second "consolatory" theme, in its relative major, a slow crescendo builds up to a fortissimo of strings accompanying the brass and drums. The main theme is built upon, switching to its tonic minor; after much development, the movement, without ever quickening, again climaxes with a fff drumroll, brass knell, and resurgence of the first theme, which then decrescendos. The tam-tam comes in softly, its only note played within the entire symphony, and a funeral-like chorale of the trombones and tuba is heard. The second theme, now in its tonic minor, reemerges and then meanders off into a quiet ending.[22]

Cello Concerto

Among the sketches for the "Pathétique" were found sketches of a projected Cello Concerto. It was debated whether or not the sketches were to belong to the finale of the symphony or a completely different work. After much discussion, experts agreed that the sketches belonged to the Cello Concerto.

In popular culture

The second theme of the first movement formed the basis of a popular song in the 1940s, "(This is) The Story of a Starry Night" (by Mann Curtis, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston) which was popularized by Glenn Miller. This same theme is the music behind "Where," a 1959 hit for Tony Williams and the Platters as well as "In Time," by Steve Lawrence in 1961. All three of these songs have completely different lyrics.

British progressive rock band The Nice covered Symphony No. 6 on their album Five Bridges.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony has proved a popular choice with filmmakers, with extracts featuring in (amongst others) Now, Voyager, the 1997 version of Anna Karenina, Minority Report, Sweet Bird of Youth,Soylent Green and The Aviator.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony has also been featured during the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremony, being danced by Russia's national ballet team.


  1. ^ Steinberg, 635.
  2. ^ Tchaikovsky
  3. ^ a b Bagar, 754.
  4. ^ a b qtd. in Bagar, 754.
  5. ^ a b Bagar, 755.
  6. ^ qtd. in Bagar, 755.
  7. ^ Listen to "Discovering Music - Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony".  from 2:30
  8. ^ Steinberg, 638.
  9. ^ a b Jackson, Timothy (1999). Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), p.51. ISBN 0521646766.
  10. ^ a b Poznansky, Quest, 558.
  11. ^ Poznansky, Quest, 535-536, 558-559.
  12. ^ Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, 339–340.
  13. ^ a b Poznansky, Quest, 559.
  14. ^ Jackson, 4.
  15. ^ Jackson, 38–40.
  16. ^ Jackson, 3–4.
  17. ^ Taruskin, 134.
  18. ^ a b Taruskin, 133.
  19. ^ Holden, 374.
  20. ^ a b Brown, Final Years, 445.
  21. ^ David Brown, Final Years, 388.
  22. ^ According to Karlinsky, it is an elegy for one or more of Tchaikovsky's deceased lovers.


  • Bagar, Robert, "Peter Ilyitch Tchaikowsky", The Concert Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Symphonic Music (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1947).
  • Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Final Years (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992). ISBN 0-393-03099-7.
  • Cross, Milton and Ewen, David, "Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky", in Vol. II of Milton Cross' Encyclopedia of Great Composers and Their Music (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962).
  • Holden, Anthony, Tchaikovsky: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995). ISBN 0-679-42006-1.
  • Jackson, Timothy L., Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 (Pathétique) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). ISBN 0-521-64676-6.
  • Keller, Hans, "Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky", in Vol. I of The Symphony, ed. Robert Simpson (Harmondsworth, 1966).
  • Poznansky, Alexander Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991). ISBN 0-02-871885-2.
  • Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai, Letoppis Moyey Muzykalnoy Zhizni (St. Petersburg, 1909), published in English as My Musical Life (New York: Knopf, 1925, 3rd ed. 1942). ISBN n/a.
  • Steinberg, Michael, The Symphony (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ISBN 0-19-512665-3 (paperback)
  • Taruskin, Richard, On Russian Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). ISBN 0-520-24979-0.

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Symphony_No._6_(Tchaikovsky)". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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