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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”

The Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s final completed work, premiered to a lukewarm reception on October 28, 1893, only nine days before the composer’s death from cholera. Although its emotional intensity and title, Pathétique, suggest that this was yet another manifestation of the composer’s periodic depression or even a foreshadowing of his own death, the fact remains that Tchaikovsky was extremely pleased with this work from the moment he set to work on it. The Symphony’s second performance was part of a memorial service for the composer, during which the audience seems to have suddenly perceived its significance. It has remained a favorite ever since.

Tchaikovsky’s original conception was that the Symphony should have a program, much like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, but he refused to specify what the program was, wanting the listener to guess it. His early, and by now well-known, scenario for the program reads:

“The ultimate essence of the plan…is LIFE. First movement – all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH – result of collapse). Second movement, love, third, disappointment, fourth ends dying away (also short).”

The final version can be understood to conform to this program only in part, and then only in the first and fourth movements.

Still intending to call his work a “program” symphony, Tchaikovsky accepted his brother Modest’s suggestion of the Russian patetichesky, which the publisher insisted on translating into French, still the language of the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia. However, non-Russian speakers should realize that patetichesky does not mean “pathetic”. It means “passionate”, which is a far better descriptor for the work.

The Symphony opens with a low bassoon solo introducing the first theme in a ponderous and pessimistic Adagio. The melody is then taken up in a nervous Allegro and repeated by the successive sections of the orchestra. The emotional turmoil, however, is resolved in the second theme, among the most famous in the canon of memorable Tchaikovsky melodies. The theme was specifically meant to be a transformation of Don José’s “flower aria” from Carmen – giving a hint as to the composer’s negative emotional take on love.

The second movement is a “waltz” in 5/4 time, giving the impression of alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4. Despite the unusual meter, the music works as a waltz, with the foreshortened 2/4 bars serving as a lift or emotive pause, if the music were actually to be used for dancing.

The third movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s great innovations—a piece that starts as a scherzo, turns into a march, and then presents the scherzo and the march simultaneously. The thrilling finish usually evokes applause, because it sounds like the symphony’s over. 

But it’s not. Tchaikovsky immediately plunges the listener from the manic high of the third movement to the mournful sounds of the finale Finale, which alternates between a passionate first theme and a prayerful second theme.  Each theme becomes faster and more passionate with each reappearance until the symphony closes in the same dark mood in which it began.

Instrumentation: 3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion, Strings.

The Dayton Philharmonic’s most recent performance was in April 2012 with Neal Gittleman conducting.