Pathétique Symphony, byname ofSymphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, final composition by Peter Tchaikovsky. Called the “Passionate Symphony” by the composer, it was mistranslated into French after his death, earning the title by which it became henceforth known, Pathétique (meaning “evoking pity”). The symphony premiered on October 28, 1893, according to the modern calendar, though at the time Russia still used the old form, by which the date was October 16. It was the composer’s last work; nine days later, he was dead, and observers have long debated whether the often gloomy nature of the work reflected Tchaikovsky’s own emotional state at the time.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 is forever associated with the tragedy of his sudden death. In the last year of his life, 1893, the composer began work on a new symphony. Sketches dated from as early as February, but progress was slow. Concert tours to France and England and the awarding of a doctorate of music from Cambridge cut into the time available for composition. Thus, though Tchaikovsky could compose quickly when the muse was with him, it was not until the end of August that he was able to complete the new work. Its premiere, with the composer himself on the podium, was given in St. Petersburg two months later, on October 28.
The work seemed unusually somber, particularly in its finale that, both in tempo and dynamics, fades into nothingness. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest suggested at the time that the work ought to be called by the French word “pathetique,” [the Russian equivalent is “pateticheskoy”] meaning melancholy, and Tchaikovsky supposedly agreed, but if Modest or anyone else bothered to ask the reason behind the symphony’s gloomy mood, Tchaikovsky’s answer is lost to time. His only remembered comment about the new piece is, “Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work.”
Nine days later, on November 6, the composer was dead. His family blamed cholera, but physician’s statements were contradictory and friends were skeptical. Cholera, they insisted, was a disease of the poor, almost unheard of amongst the upper classes. Surely Tchaikovsky would have known how to prevent exposure. In addition, as the composer’s friend and colleague Rimsky-Korsakov commented in his own memoirs, the highly-contagious nature of cholera would have precluded the open-casket ceremony that actually occurred. Why, Rimsky asks, were mourners allowed to kiss the departed goodbye? On that question, Tchaikovsky’s family remained determinedly silent.
At the time, the mystery remained unresolved. However, evidence that came to light in 1978 suggests that Tchaikovsky spent his last months distraught over a barely concealed scandal in his personal life. The homosexuality that, throughout adulthood, he had fought to conceal was about to become public knowledge. Some have suggested that he committed suicide in the hope that ending his life would also silence the rumors. It is entirely possible, for deep depressions were common to him. Furthermore, he had attempted suicide at least once before. Perhaps this was another attempt that was also meant to fail, but instead tragically succeeded.
Substantially the longest of the symphony’s four movements, the opening Adagio - Allegro non troppo begins with a sober theme presented by solo bassoon and double basses; having started in the orchestra’s lowest range, Tchaikovsky ensures that listeners will grasp the gravitas that he seems to have in mind. Quicker tempos and stronger dynamics will follow, along with a gently rhapsodic string theme, though phrases borrowed from the Russian Orthodox requiem further reinforce the ominous nature of the music.
The second movement Allegro con grazia is gracefully dance-like, though being in the irregularly used 5/4 meter, it deeply infuriated conservative observers, who apparently would have preferred something closer to a waltz. However, these pages of almost interrupted rapture serve perfectly for offsetting the grimmer tensions of the first movement.
With the third movement Allegro molto vivace, Tchaikovsky sets out with a scherzo-like scampering of strings and woodwinds, interrupted at times with a bold marching spirit. Gradually, that march takes charge, providing the most overtly optimistic moods of the symphony. Powering as it does to the movement’s closing chord, it occasionally surprises inattentive listeners into bursts of applause, on the mistaken notion that this must be the end of the entire work.
Indeed, ending with excitement would be a typical way of building a symphony, but that is not what Tchaikovsky had in mind. His Finale: Adagio lamentoso - Andante offers slow tempos, long phrasing, and intense musical sighs and sobs. For every phrase that rises, three more fall in despair, and it is in the most funereal of moods that the symphony fades to its close.
Musicologists with psychological leanings have tried to associate the possibility of suicide with the fact of the somber symphony. They see parallels between the composer’s increasing anxiety and the symphony’s fading conclusion. Certainly, other composers have written minor key symphonies without taking their own lives, but the usual expectation was that a symphony, even one in a minor key, would end with energy, if not with optimism. Yet Tchaikovsky’s final symphonic statement slowly dissipates into ever-deepening gloom. It is, some suggest, the musical voice of suicidal depression.
However, such an analysis ignores an historical fact. Tchaikovsky began work on the piece nearly a year before its premiere, long before the rumors started. At that time, he wrote to his nephew that the new symphony would conclude with what he called “an adagio of considerable dimensions,” which is certainly the manner in which the work ultimately concludes. If this composition is evidence of a troubled mind, then that mood had persisted for many months. What is more likely is that the symphony was simply the ultimate expression of Tchaikovsky’s life-long obsession with dark emotions.
Music: Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony
RQ: To what extent do the themes, motifs, and progressions in the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony represent his life and death?
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote many well known pieces of music including six symphonies, three ballets, eleven operas, and numerous other musical pieces over the course of his life from 1840 to 1893. Tchaikovsky’s death has always been a mystery, some historians claiming he died from cholera, others say it was arsenic-induced suicide. The answer will forever remain unclear, but none can deny that Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the “Pathetique”, points to death frequently, particularly the impermanence of existence and the inability to become stagnant completely stable in one’s life. Themes, motifs, and harmonic repetitions in the fourth, and final, movement of the “Pathetique” symbolize Tchaikovsky’s later years and the mystery surrounding his death, expressing the commonalities of man’s life, struggle, and death.
Tchaikovsky wrote music in the Romantic period of music. The Romantic period extended from the early 18th into the early 19th century. The cultural focus of the arts at that time was on expression of internal emotion, a concept that is strongly represented in Tchaikovsky’s work and his emotional composition process. In addition to composing in the Romantic period, Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer, and was heavily influenced by Russian music and traditions.
The “Pathetique” was completed and performed in 1893, the same year that Tchaikovsky died. The fourth movement mimics the ternary form with elements of sonata form. The ternary form has the structure ABA, with the two “A” sections repeating the same melodic and harmonic motifs, and the B section a complete differentiation from the two other sections’ tones. Sonata form is a subtype of ternary with three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. (Wieland) Within the context of other symphonies that Tchaikovsky has written, the “Pathetique” is the last one he wrote before he died, and is the only one to end in a minor key. Minor keys typically show negative moods, and the fact that the piece ends in B minor symbolizes Tchaikovsky’s “bitter end” and the uncertainty surrounding his death.
Several rhythmic elements throughout the fourth movement also contribute to the idea of uncertainty and negativity. Amidst various themes and musical motifs, triplets are usually present. The triplet pattern first appears in the french horn part introducing the relative major section beginning two measures before rehearsal marking C (example 1).
Example 1: Introduction of Triplet Motif in the Clarinets, Bassoon, and French Horns (Tchaikovsky 202)
This triplet motif continues through varying instruments throughout the entire relative major section until rehearsal marking F, where the winds and strings have frantic contrasting rhythmic lines, the winds and string basses with non moving triplets and the rest of the strings with descending eighth notes (example 2).
Example 2: Contrasting Rhythms in the Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, Gong, and Violins (Tchaikovsky 208)
After a rest with a fermata at preceding rehearsal marking G, the triplets disappear until rehearsal marking I, where a sixteenth note triplets remain in the bass line until the climax of the piece at letter K, after which they return at rehearsal marking M. These many instances of triplets represent things in Tchaikovsky’s life that can be both symbols of good and bad. They are present during the major sections, but also the intense build up into the minor climax. They are also there at the bitter end. Triplets are one of the last things played, as the symphony dies down to a pianissississimo (pppp).The first bass part, the only rhythmically interesting line, gradually slows down from triplets to a double dotted half note (example 3).
Example 3: The Ending in Celli and Basses (Tchaikovsky 221)
The piece seems to lose energy, a direct opposition of the earlier panic ridden acceleration following rehearsal marking F. The tempo also immediately slows down when the rhythm does four measures before the end of the movement. The triplet motif, the constant figures, ideas, and beliefs that have been with Tchaikovsky since the beginning and have created who he was, literally die out at the end of the piece as he and his music run out of time and energy.
Similarly, many rhythmic themes show panic and anxiety throughout the fourth movement. Following the rhythmic conflict at rehearsal marking F, both the note lengths and the tempo contribute to the feelings of panic. The tempo accelerates from Piu mosso at F to Stringendo and finally ending in Vivace. The moving line in the strings keep adding more notes to each figure, going from eighth notes to triplets to sixteenth notes to sixteenth note sixtuplets to sixteenth note septuplets (example 4).
Example 4: Speeding Up in the Violins, Violas, and Celli (Tchaikovsky 209)
The piece seems to not be able to move fast enough or gain energy fast enough, and the rapid acceleration into an abrupt stop depict intense panic and stress that is unable to be resolved. Throughout his life, Tchaikovsky had been driven on blindly by something without real cause or purpose. Tchaikovsky’s brother said of him, prior to the composition of the “Pathetique”, “It seemed that my brother had ceased to belong to himself”. “When Tchaikovsky began to compose the Sixth Symphony it was as if a light had broken through” and the act of creation fueled both the music and Tchaikovsky himself (Gee 183). The panic and build up throughout this musical section mirror the heightened anxiety of Tchaikovsky and the release, the closing C Major chord, of creation.
Another theme of panic is the variation of the opening melody at letter K, the climax of the movement. The opening melody (example 5) is Adagio lamentoso (54 beats per minute), and trades the melodic line (example 6) between the first and second violins.
Example 5: Opening Figures in Violins, Violas, and Celli (Tchaikovsky 199)
Example 6: Opening Melody Condensed
At rehearsal marking K in the music (example 7), the tempo is almost double, and the melodic line has a slight rhythmic variation. Besides each having an ascending lead in, the rhythm is altered to have four eighth notes rather than two eighth notes, a dotted eighth note, and a sixteenth note.
Example 7: The Variation in the Violins, Violas, and Celli (Tchaikovsky 217)
The slight changes in composition make the melodic figure seem much more rushed and panicked, as if there isn’t enough time for the figures to fit in, so they have to rush and almost stutter through the figures, losing steam and eventually descending in pitch. The resulting tone after the change in energy is somber and uncertain. This transition mimics a mental breakdown caused by stress and panic, and the piece never quite recovers after that. After moving to places he used to love, Italy, France, etc., Tchaikovsky regretting his decision and “wondered what demon could have prompted him to take the journey”, his suffering being beyond words (Gee 186). Tchaikovsky himself said “there is a place in my new symphony where I think I have expressed these feelings quite well” regarding his panic and anguish in his new place of residence.
The use of harmonic figures also contributes to the themes of uncertainty, unfulfillment, and death. A common harmonic motif throughout the fourth movement of the “Pathetique” is suspensions, particularly when played in the french horn part. At the beginning of the piece, the bassoons and flutes suspend over melodic lines mirroring the beginning of the piece (example 8).
Example 8: Opening Suspensions in Flutes and Bassoons (Tchaikovsky 199)
Suspensions lead the listener into yearning for resolution, which comes delayed. Tchaikovsky uses the suspensions over the opening melody, and every subsequent repetition of that same melody, to show the intense longing and yearning in his later years. What Tchaikovsky is yearning for, however, is less clear. He could be yearning for a freedom from the stress and obligation of composition, conducting, and touring, which he loathed (Gee 186).
Following the climax at rehearsal marking K, an organ-like harmonic progression occurs between the trombones and tubas (example 9).
Example 9: The Lost Harmonic Sequence in the Trombones and Tubas (Tchaikovsky 218)
The first seven measures of ex. 9 are all the same harmonic cadence. However, each lands in a different tonic. The roman numeral analysis for the cadence is i V⁶⁵ i, or from a tonic minor chord to a first inversion major minor seventh chord built on the dominant back to the minor triad built on the tonic. However, every iteration lowers the temporary tonic by a step. This creates an uneasy, unstable atmosphere where the progression cannot seem to land or settle anywhere definitively. Going back to Tchaikovsky’s locational regrets later in his life, he could never settle into any one spot and felt the need to return to his home. Tchaikovsky also was often forced into conducting and going on tours, offering an additional source of instability into his life. His inability to land in one place and establish a permanent home is seen in this part of his piece, where the progression can’t land, and when it does land, it is grim and bleak. The final twenty five measures of the piece following the Lost Harmonic Sequence seem to have no hope, no wishful thinking, just dread and sadness. The triplet motif comes back and eventually the entire piece dies away to nothing. The piece, like Tchaikovsky, couldn’t find their way until they died.