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Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathetique)
I. Adagio; Allegro non troppo
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Adagio lamentoso; Andante
“I love it as I never loved any of my musical children,” wrote Tchaikovsky about his Sixth Symphony. He had sketched a new symphony in the fall of 1892, but was dissatisfied with it. “I had completed a symphony which suddenly displeased me,” he wrote to his brother Anatol, “and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.”
By February, 1893, Tchaikovsky described to his nephew Vladimir Davidov “a symphony with a program, but a program that will remain an enigma to all. Let them guess for themselves; the symphony will be called merely ‘Programmatic Symphony.’ But the program is indeed permeated with subjectiveness, so much so that not once but often, while composing it in my mind, I wept.”
However, between the two World Wars, a penciled note in Tchaikovsky's handwriting was discovered: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the Symphony is LIFE. First part--all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH--result of collapse.) Second part love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”
Work on the symphony was interrupted by a trip to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. By August, he was back home, writing to his publisher: “On my word of honor, never in my life have I been so satisfied with myself, so proud, so happy to know that I have made, in truest fact, a good thing.”
The first performance of the Sixth Symphony took place in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, with Tchaikovsky conducting. The reception was lukewarm, one reviewer complaining that “as far as inspiration is concerned, this music stands far below Tchaikovsky's other symphonies.” Even Tchaikovsky noticed that “something strange is happening to this symphony. It is not exactly disliked, but it seems to puzzle people. As for me, I am prouder of it than of any of my other compositions.”
The day after the première, Tchaikovsky's brother Modeste suggested Pathetique as a subtitle for the work and Tchaikovsky agreed. The new title acquired fresh irony when, on November 6, 1893, just nine days of the first performance, Tchaikovsky died. Whether his death was the result of cholera from drinking unboiled water or suicide by arsenic is still being debated.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey wrote: “It is not for merely sentimental or biographical reasons that Tchaikovsky's Sixth has become the most famous of all his works. Nowhere else has he concentrated so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme; and the slow finale, with its complete simplicity of despair, is a stroke of genius which solves all the artistic problems that have proved most baffling to symphonic writers since Beethoven. The whole work carries conviction without the slightest sense of effort; and its most celebrated features…are thrown into their right relief by developments far more powerful, terse, and highly organized than Tchaikovsky has achieved in any other work…. All Tchaikovsky's music is dramatic; and the Pathetic Symphony is the most dramatic of all his works.”
The score calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, tam-tam, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and strings.
©2010 Charley Samson