Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 6 in B minor Pathetique

Tchaikovsky was born in the shadow of the Ural Mountains, the son of an Inspector of Mines. The family was soon to move to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg. As a child he complained that his head was so full of music that it gave him headaches. Indeed his musical talents were apparent – he began to play the piano with great facility, and was to produce a number of original compositions by the age of 14 years. However, the family decided that from the age of 10 years he should be groomed for the Civil Service. Following graduation from the School of Jurisprudence in St.Petersburg, he entered the Justice Ministry in 1859.

At the age of 23 years he summoned up enough courage to resign and devote himself to the study of music. He entered the newly-founded Russian Musical Society (the precursor of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatoires) where he came under the influence of Anton Rubenstein. Later he taught Harmony for six years at the Moscow Conservatoire, under the patronage of Nicolai Rubenstein.

Balakirev, one of the group of Russian composers known as “The Mighty Handful”, became for a few years an influence on Tchaikovsky in the form of an autocratic critic of the younger composer’s work.

During those early years Tchaikovsky was subject to nervous illnesses (which he never really grew out of), and he was devastated at the age of 14 by the death of his mother from cholera.

There were to be many further traumas in his life, not least his disastrous 9 weeks’ marriage in 1877 and the subsequent suicide attempt, following which his brother, Anatoly, took him on a recuperative tour of Europe. In fact Tchaikovsky toured extensively, meeting some of Europe’s most influential composers on the way, such as Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak and Mahler. In 1891 he toured the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.A. and conducted inaugural concerts at the Carnegie Hall, New York.

The year before his marriage, he embarked on that curious ‘postal’ relationship with his wealthy Patron Madam Nedezhda von Meck. They came face to face only once and both fled from each other’s presence without exchanging a word. The relationship had lasted some 13 years when it was broken off, suddenly, by Madam von Meck.

In his younger days Tchaikovsky’s biographers refer to his firm friendships and his enjoyment of practical jokes. However, he was shy and subject to depression, and the emotional fevers increased as he grew older. To be in the company of strangers was an increasing burden. In fact he became almost misanthropic despite his growing fame.

The greatest burden he was beginning to bear was his homosexuality. This was privately known about, but his relationship with his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davidov was becoming more open and public. Tchaikovsky must have feared that such a relationship, should it reach the ears of the authorities, would inevitably lead to public disgrace. There was also talk of the “Court of Honour” formed of fellow pupils from his old school in St. Petersburg who, it was said, “found against him”, this in 1893.

The year is now 1892 and he was working on a “Symphony of Life” in Eb, which he abandoned for a Programme Symphony No. 6. Work on it was interrupted by Tchaikovsky’s third visit to England in 1893, when an Honorary Doctorate of Music was bestowed upon him by Cambridge University.

The 6th Symphony he dedicated to his nephew “Bob” Davidov, the “Programme” of which Tchaikovsky refused to reveal. The French subtitle “Pathétique” was subsequently substituted for “Programme”. The title was possibly suggested by his brother Modeste, the day after the first performance on the 28th October 1893 (which was conducted by the composer). The St. Petersburg public’s reception was only lukewarm, which did not lift Tchaikovsky’s spirits.

On the 1st November, during supper with friends, Tchaikovsky ordered a glass of water which was served with the warning “that it had not been boiled”. Nevertheless Tchaikovsky gulped it down without apparent thought to the dangers of cholera (which was prevalent in St. Petersburg). Whether it was a further deliberate attempt at suicide perhaps we shall never know. Eight days after that first performance Tchaikovsky was dead, officially from cholera.

Did Tchaikovsky, after writing that final “B” on his manuscript, put down his pen and utter to himself, those final words of Hamlet “the rest is silence”? – perhaps he did.

Reading through the score of the Symphony one is immediately struck by Tchaikovsky’s diligent markings as to speed and dynamics, which convey his precise intentions to his interpreters.

The distinguished American critic and author, Harold C. Schonberg, describes Tchaikovsky’s music as “Supercharged Emotionalism” and the writer of the notes contained in this year’s BBC Proms Guide describes the Pathétique “as one of the most concentrated expressions of despair in the orchestral repertory”.

First movement. Adagio/Allegro non troppo

Tchaikovsky opens his Symphony, over 18 bars, from out of the depths of despair. A theme intoned by the bassoons is joined by divided violas over a chromatic bass. The despairing mood is maintained throughout this eighteen-bar opening episode. In the very next bar, divided violas and cellos take hold of the opening bassoon theme (albeit with a certain muted colouring and agitation), and leap with it into an Allegro non troppo as the movement’s 1st subject. They are soon to be joined by flutes and clarinets and now, for some 67 bars, the music is quite elated. It would not seem too amiss if Tchaikovsky had described it as “quasi-scherzando”.

But these high spirits are not going to last. Two Adagio bars introduce the second subject, and the mood becomes more languid and passionate. The music is now marked “Andante, teneramente-cantabile et con espansione”. It continues to be imbued with an innate sense of expressive expansion, until a further Andante. Woodwind and brass, their parts now in 12/8, play their quaver groups of notes pesante (i.e. hammered) against the upper strings’ sweeping legato in 4/4. This romantic episode descends and fades into the deepest of deep slumbers, until it is shatteringly awakened by a full orchestral tutti on a diminished chord of C minor. The movement then plunges into the development section, which takes the form of a fugue.

The despairing theme, heard originally in the introduction, is now broken up and rapidly tossed hither and thither throughout the orchestra. Out of this tormenting of the first subject, the brass reminds us in no uncertain terms of the languid passionate second subject, albeit in a “stretched” version. The heady excitement continues to develop into a full orchestral climax. This leads directly into the recapitulation of the 1st subject, now completely transmogrified: violent, aggressive, eventually falling – exhausted. Out of the ensuing silence the passionate second subject re-emerges, more richly harmonised than before, against shimmering lower strings. It is driven, with a chromatic scale passage, to a sensual climax from whose dizzy heights it droops with all energy spent, leading directly into the Coda, wherein any residual vitality or passion finally drains away.

Second movement. Allegro con grazia

This movement is in Ternary Form, which may be shown as Sections a + a1 + b + b1 + a + Coda. It has the unusual time signature of 5/4 throughout; each bar in the main is divided into 2+3 beats.

From the very first bar Tchaikovsky has been inspired to commit to paper one of his most charming and delightful melodies, upon which the 2+3 rhythm bestows an added piquancy. It is first heard in the cellos and then in the woodwind (accompanied by the cellos in contra-direction.)

Following the repeat of these opening 16 bars (Section a1), the strings now “sweep up” the theme and carry it along, until exchanged with the woodwind. We hear the theme enriched harmonically as they play away in thirds and octaves. As progress is made, the harmony is further enriched with the introduction of the brass.

The music builds, but no overwhelming climax is achieved. The dynamic is eased as the music steps directly into Section b. At this point the key has modulated from D major to B minor, and is marked “Con dolcezza e flebile” (with a little sweetness and plaintively). In Section b (of 8 bars repeated) the theme is falling and given to flutes, 1st violins and cellos. Section b1 now follows, also of 8 bars repeated, but here the theme is rising and given to flutes, 1st and 2nd violins (in octaves), and violas. It will be noted that during the b and b1 episodes the themes have amended note values, which have become 1½ + ½ + 3 beats per bar.

The b theme which has the dying fall continues, but only for a further 9 bars. The opening theme “a” begins to reassert itself; brass and strings leading the way for the woodwind. With the key of D major re-established, the theme is then shared between woodwind and strings, and leads to the Coda.

The Coda marks a distinct change in the music’s “ambience”. The sweep and flow is muted, and the final bars of the movement take on a passive atmosphere. Tchaikovsky continues to remind us of the 2+3 pulse as the movement steps lightly into the mists of time.

Third movement. Allegro molto vivace

This movement is in the form of a march, and is in two parts – each subdivided. The first half of each part, with its continually running staccato quavers, acts as a contrasting foil to the heavier martial tread of both second halves. The march is first presented quite tentatively, and then with extreme robustness.

Throughout the movement there is interplay between the 12/8 and 4/4 time signatures, which adds rhythmic interest.

Out of the ‘underpinning’ of chattering quavers which are heard in the violins at the movement’s opening the oboes emerge. They first suggest the marching theme, which is then taken up by the brass and double basses. The march then becomes more apparent.

A rising pizzicato bar from the violins establishes without doubt the martial tread; joined by piccolo, the other strings and trombones. This all leads into two “Cadenza” bars where the clarinets and bassoons “spit out” in 4/4 a rising staccatissimo passage against a tumbling of quavers in the strings. This all leads to a positive yet gentle re-statement by the clarinets and horns of the march, which is subsequently shared out amongst the orchestra. This state of progress is maintained until a change of key is established. There is a reiteration of the movement’s opening moments of chattering quavers, during which abbreviated portions of the march theme are evident. Now, heralded by a sustained timpani roll, and with an increase in dynamic intensity, the music builds to what can only be described as an “Orchestral Cadenza” over 6 bars. This explodes into a full statement of the march, which strides purposefully into the movement’s final bar.

Fourth movement. Finale adagio lamentoso

In the final bar of the previous movement Tchaikovsky achieved his Symphony’s climax – in writing this, the final movement, he surely has reached a crisis point, not only in his music and professional career but also in his private life.

The movement is closely related to the first in its despair, melancholy and pathos. In form it is like the third, being in two parts each sub-divided. The opening section “a” is in B minor. The first four bars establish a mood of dark despair. The orchestration is sparse right through to section “a1”, which is marked poco-animato. Here Tchaikovsky has lifted his spirits a little into D major, with the added marking con espressimo – con sentimento, until a desperate climax leads to a Piu Mosso-stringendo. Literally this is a “drawing together”, but in effect it provides an acceleration of descending octave scales for the strings, leading to a ‘vivace’ of four bars with a despairing climax on the fifth, followed by a dramatic pause.

The music restarts as an Andante, but the theme is interrupted with further pauses, which add to the sense of desperate frustration. This episode now has a dying fall over a rising bass line. Then, an upward octave scale passage – a heart-rending moment – leads into Section b. This is a variant reprise of the movement’s opening music. In the following bars there is a cry of desperation, accompanied by ominous timpani rolls. This episode falls exhausted into a quotation, over 7 bars, from the Russian Orthodox burial service “Repose the Soul”, sombrely entrusted to the trombones and tuba.

Did Tchaikovsky really intend this Symphony to be his Requiem?

Following these 7 bars (Section b1) the music is now marked Andante Giusto (i.e. suitably slowly). With a re-phrasing of the earlier Section ‘a’, the movement is played out to a mere wisp of sound.