TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN B MINOR, OPUS 74, PATHÉTIQUE

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74, Pathétique

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on April 25 (old style)/May 7 (new style), 1840, at Votkinsk, in the district of Viatka, Russia, some seven hundred miles east-northeast of Moscow, and died on October 25/November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg. (All further dates in this essay are given according to the new style Gregorian calendar which was adopted in Russia in 1918 and corresponds to the modern Western calendar.) Tchaikovsky wrote his last symphony between February and the end of August 1893 and conducted the first performance in the Hall of Nobles, Saint Petersburg, on October 28, nine days before his death. The second performance, under Eduard Nápravník, took place twenty days later in the same hall as part of a memorial concert for the composer. The first performance in the United States was given by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on March 16, 1894. Henry Hadley conducted the Pathétique on December 8, 1911, at the first concert ever presented by the San Francisco Symphony. The most recent subscription performances were given under the direction of Itzhak Perlman in October 2009. The symphony is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew Vladimir (Bob) Davidov. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam [ad lib], and strings. Performance time: about forty-six minutes.

At its premiere, the Pathétique was not received with contemptuous silence, like the First Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky’s detested Brahms, nor did it elicit anything like a Sacre-sized scandale; rather, the occasion was that always depressing event, a succès d’estime. Tchaikovsky put it this way in a letter to his publisher, Piotr Jürgenson: “It is very strange about this symphony. It was not exactly a failure, but it was received with some hesitation.”

We can only guess at the reasons. It is nearly impossible now to imagine encountering the Pathétique for the first time and as a new piece, but if we can make that leap we might see how an Adagio finale with a pppp close on cellos and basses alone could have been puzzling and somehow “unfinal.” Another factor would have been a weakness in the presentation. Tchaikovsky, though he lacked a performer’s temperament, had become an efficient conductor by the end of his life; he was, however, always affected by an orchestra’s mood, and the Saint Petersburg players’ initial coolness to the new score depressed him and sapped his enthusiasm for the task. At the second performance, which was under the baton of the excellent Eduard Nápravník, the Pathétique made a powerful impression.

Between the two first performances of the Pathétique there was a difference beyond Nápravník’s commanding presence on the podium. Tchaikovsky had died twelve days before, and that was something the audience could not stop thinking about as they bathed in what the English writer Martin Cooper called the “voluptuous gloom” of this all but posthumous symphony. Black drapery and a bust modeled after Tchaikovsky’s death mask heightened the atmosphere.

Tchaikovsky had died of cholera. There was an epidemic in Saint Petersburg, or at least a scare, and he had drunk a glass of unboiled water, fallen ill, and died four days later. There is little concord in the various accounts of when and where Tchaikovsky made that fatal mistake.

In 1979, a Russian émigré musicologist, Alexandra Orlova, published an article in the English journal Music and Letters, claiming that Tchaikovsky had committed suicide by poison on order from a “court of honor” consisting of several of his fellow alumni of the School of Jurisprudence, where the composer had studied in the 1850s. They supposedly feared disgrace to their alma mater, anticipating the disclosure of a liaison between Tchaikovsky and a young nobleman. The story gained wider circulation as Orlova published further articles, but three years later the suicide theory drew a rebuttal focusing on the shaky foundations of her account with respect to information, interpretation, and the rules of evidence. And so we are back with that old acquaintance from so many program notes, the glass of unboiled water.

At the premiere of the Pathétique, Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky “whether he had a program for this composition. He replied that there was one, of course, but that he did not wish to announce it.” In February 1893, Tchaikovsky had written to Bob Davidov that he was working on his new symphony with such ardor that it had taken him only four days to write the sketch of the first movement and that the rest of the score was already clearly outlined in his head. The new piece, he added, would have a program, “but a program of a kind that would remain an enigma to all—let them guess, but the symphony will just be called Program Symphony (No. 6), Symphonie à Programme (No. 6), Eine Programm Symphonie (No. 6). This program is saturated with subjective feeling, and often . . . while composing it in my mind, I shed many tears. . . . Do not speak of this to anyone but Modest.”

The day after the premiere, Tchaikovsky decided that Program Symphony was silly as long as he did not intend to divulge the program. Modest suggested Tragic, but Piotr Ilyich was not persuaded. “Suddenly the word patetichesky came into my head,” Modest writes. “I went back and—I remember as if it were yesterday—I stood in the doorway and uttered the word. ‘Excellent, Modya, bravo, patetichesky!’ and before my eyes he wrote on the score the title by which it has since been known.” But Tchaikovsky changed his mind once again. The next day, October 30, he asked his publisher—the score with patetichesky was already on the way—“to put on the title page what stands below: To Vladimir Lvovich Davidov—No. 6—Composed by P. T.” He added, “I hope it is not too late.”

Jürgenson, who knew that a good title never hurt sales, ignored the request and sent the work out into the world as Symphonie pathétique. This title, then, which had the composer convinced for twenty-four hours anyway, did not get his final blessing. It is, however, permanently glued to the symphony and merits a moment’s consideration. Patetichesky and pathétique, as well as our own “pathetic,” all come, by way of the Latin patheticus, from the Greek patheticos and ultimately from pathos, which means “suffering.” The words do not, however, carry the same weight of meaning in these several languages. In English, we most often use the word in what dictionaries still list as its secondary meaning of “distressing and inadequate,” and its familiarity in that sense colors and trivializes our response to Modest’s title. Tchaikovsky’s biographer John Warrack emphasizes that “the Russian word . . . carries more feeling of ‘passionate’ and ‘emotional’ in it than the English ‘pathetic,’ and perhaps an overtone, which has largely vanished from our word, of . . . ‘suffering.’ ”

Tchaikovsky had begun the year 1893 in some depression over the reception of The Nutcracker and his one-act opera Iolanthe, produced as a double bill at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg in December 1892. He was also disappointed because a symphony begun the previous year had refused to jell. In addition, he was still pained by the sudden end his mysterious patroness and pen pal Nadezhda von Meck had put to their relationship two years before. On the other hand, the world sent signals of success—Corresponding Membership in the French Academy and an honorary doctorate from Cambridge—and there was the sweet pleasure of reaping greater success than Saint-Saëns at a concert they shared in London.

Above all, it was the not-yet Pathétique that gave him pleasure. As always, he had moments of doubt; in August he told Bob that the orchestration failed to realize his dreams and that he expected the work to be met with “abuse or at least misunderstanding.” But even in that letter he conceded that he was “well pleased” with the symphony’s contents, and in general his correspondence for that year indicates that he was composing with confidence and delight. “I certainly regard it as easily the best—and especially the most ‘sincere’—of all my works, and I love it as I have never before loved one of my musical offspring,” he told Bob. To the Grand Duke Constantine he wrote, “Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work.” Even during the dispiriting rehearsals, he maintained that this was “the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose.”

Tchaikovsky begins with an extraordinary sound, that of a very low bassoon solo rising through the murk of double basses divided into two sections, with violas in their most sepulchral register adding their voices to the cadences. This and the beginning of the finale, which is at precisely the same tempo, are the symphony’s slowest passages. When this Adagio emerges into quicker motion it does so, unlike at the corresponding places in the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, in order to continue the same musical thought. Tchaikovsky stirs this nervous theme to a climax and then lovingly prepares the entrance of one his most famous—and beautiful—melodies, an utterly personal transformation of one of his favorite pieces, Don José’s Flower Aria in Carmen. He wants it played “tenderly, very songfully, and elastically.” The melody is expansively presented; then it disappears, dwindling by degrees all the way down to pppppp.

The development is a fierce and accelerating storm. The recapitulation is folded into the last mutterings of this tempest and, since the nervous first theme has received much attention in the development, Tchaikovsky moves directly to the great melody, richly rescored. It is a powerfully original and effective plan, to follow an almost recklessly spacious exposition with a combined, and therefore compressed, development and recapitulation. This time the dying of the great melody leads to a solemn—and taut—coda in which a brass chorale is quietly intoned over tolling scales in plucked strings.

Tchaikovsky was a wonderful waltz composer—after his slightly older contemporary in Vienna the best of his time. He had put a real waltz into his Fifth Symphony; now he includes a curious and melancholic variant of one. His Eighteen Piano Pieces, Opus 72, written in the spring of 1893, include what he calls a Valse à cinq temps, a waltz in five beats. Here he gives us another such piece, done beautifully and with haunting grace. Each 5/4 measure is made up of two beats plus three, and you could turn the movement into a normal waltz by stretching the first beat of each measure to double its length
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How does this fit into the symphony’s program? Probably not at all, except insofar as it contributes another sort of tristful climate. This atmosphere, however, vanishes with the arrival of the next movement, a brilliant scherzo, full of strange flashes and thunders, that unveils itself as a fiery march. Here we become particularly aware of Tchaikovsky’s mastery at achieving astonishing variety—and volume—with a most economically constituted orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies are “fate” symphonies that end in triumph, the former because the artist finds salvation in embracing the simple life, the latter because he co-opts the “fate” theme and turns it into a victory march. The march in the Pathétique offers no affirmation; it does serve to set off more bitterly the lament of the finale. The second and third movements form a double intermezzo between the movements that carry the real burden of Tchaikovsky’s patetichesky program, but it is an intermezzo of immense dramatic power. (Deryck Cooke was the first to point out that the design of the Mahler Ninth is modeled on that of the Pathétique. The two gloom-pleased composers first met in January 1888 when Tchaikovsky came to Leipzig to conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra.)

A great cry pierces the echo left by the last bang of the march. A new melody—in major—sets out to console, but its repetitions become obsessive and threatening, leading to catastrophe. From its shards there rises the first, lamenting melody. The snarling of stopped horns and a single, soft stroke on the tam-tam are the tokens of disaster, the harbingers of defeat. The music, over a dying pulse, sinks back into that dark region where it had begun and moves beyond our hearing. Small wonder that it was a bewildering experience on October 28, 1893, and one that took on only too frightening a meaning just three weeks later.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings:  Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra (Philips)  |  Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI Seraphim)   |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London Double Decker)

Reading:  Tchaikovsky, by David Brown, a multi-volume life-and-works (Norton)  |  Tchaikovsky Remembered, edited by Brown (Faber & Faber)  |  Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes, edited by Alexander Poznansky (Indiana University Press)  |  Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden (Bantam)  |  The Music of Tchaikovsky, edited by Gerald Abraham (Norton)

DVD:  Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Tchaikovsky and the Fourth Symphony, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.

(April 2014)