Symphony No. 6 (Tchaikovsky)
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The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 28 October [O.S. 16 October] of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on 6/18 November. It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the exact form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 16 December [O.S. 4 December], conducted by Vasily Safonov. It was the last of Tchaikovsky's compositions premiered in his lifetime; his last composition of all, the single-movement 3rd Piano Concerto, Op. 75, which was completed in October 1893, a short time before his death, received a posthumous premiere.
After completing his 5th Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891. However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript "in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create." In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew:
The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.
This work was the Symphony in E-flat, the first movement of which Tchaikovsky later converted into the one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto (his final composition), and the latter two movements of which Sergei Taneyev reworked after Tchaikovsky's death as the Andante and Finale.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky mentions an entirely new symphonic work in a letter to his brother:
I am now wholly occupied with the new work ... and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on October 19 for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving "in excellent spirits." However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky's brother Modest wrote, "There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played."
The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Patetičeskaja), means "passionate" or "emotional", not "arousing pity", but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaja or "Programme Symphony") but realised that would encourage curiosity about the programme, which he did not want to reveal. According to his brother Modest, he suggested the Патетическая title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title, but in any event his publisher chose to keep it and the title remained. Its French translation Pathétique is generally used in French, Spanish, English, German and other languages. It was published in reduction by Jurgenson of Moscow in 1893, and by Robert Forberg of Leipzig in 1894.
Dedication and suggested programs
The Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.
A suggested program has been what Taruskin disparagingly termed "symphony as suicide note." This idea began to assert itself as early as the second performance of the symphony in Saint Petersburg, not long after the composer had died. People at that performance "listened hard for portents. As always, they found what they were looking for: a brief but conspicuous quotation from the Russian Orthodox requiem at the stormy climax of the first movement, and of course the unconventional Adagio finale with its tense harmonies at the onset and its touching depiction of the dying of the light in conclusion".
Tchaikovsky specialist David Brown suggests that the symphony deals with the power of Fate in life and death. This program would not only be similar to those suggested for the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but also parallels a program suggested by Tchaikovsky for his unfinished Symphony in E flat. That program reads, "The ultimate essence ... of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short)."
A bass clarinet is sometimes used to play the bassoon solo marked pppppp in the first movement, to achieve the desired dynamic level (e.g. a recording by the Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay). In a recording of this work with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, a recording engineer failed to hear the string opening of the symphony because Fricsay had them play almost inaudibly. The engineer missed the first five bars completely but the performance (which earned the conductor a 10 minute standing ovation) was eventually broadcast on the anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death in 1993 by BBC Radio 3 and later released on the Naxos label.
The symphony contains four movements
- Adagio – Allegro non troppo (B minor – D major – ambiguous key – B major)
- Allegro con grazia (D major – B minor – D major)
- Presto: Allegro molto vivace (G major – E major – G major)
- Finale: Adagio lamentoso – Andante (B minor – D major – B minor)
In popular culture
The second theme of the first movement formed the basis of a popular song in the 1940s, "(This is) The Story of a Starry Night" (by Mann Curtis, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston) which was popularized by Glenn Miller. This same theme is the music behind "Where," a 1959 hit for Tony Williams and the Platters as well as "In Time," by Steve Lawrence in 1961, and John O'Dreams by Bill Caddick. All four songs have completely different lyrics.
Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Sixth can heard in a number of films, including Now, Voyager, the 1997 version of Anna Karenina, The Ruling Class, Minority Report, Sweet Bird of Youth, Soylent Green and The Aviator. It has also accompanied the cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show, specifically the episode 'Son of Stimpy' where the eponymous cat walks out into a blizzard ...
- Steinberg, 635.
- Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, p. 603
- Tchaikovsky Research.net
- Bagar, 754.
- qtd. in Bagar, 754.
- Bagar, 755.
- qtd. in Bagar, 755.
- Listen to "Discovering Music - Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony". from 2:30
- Steinberg, 638.
- see IMSLP
- coproduction with Jurgenson of Moscow most likely; also, see "Hofmeisters Monatsberichte" (in German). March 1894. Retrieved November 22, 2012.
- Jackson, Timothy (1999). Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), p.51. ISBN 0-521-64676-6.
- Poznansky, Quest, 558.
- Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, 339–340.
- Taruskin, 133.
- Brown, Final Years, 445.
- David Brown, Final Years, 388.
- Keeling, Bret L. "No Trace of Presence": Tchaikovsky and the Sixth in Forster's Maurice, Mosaic, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 2003.
- Bagar, Robert, "Peter Ilyitch Tchaikowsky", The Concert Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Symphonic Music (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1947).
- Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Final Years (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992). ISBN 0-393-03099-7.
- Cross, Milton and Ewen, David, "Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky", in Vol. II of Milton Cross' Encyclopedia of Great Composers and Their Music (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962).
- Holden, Anthony, Tchaikovsky: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995). ISBN 0-679-42006-1.
- Keller, Hans, "Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky", in Vol. I of The Symphony, ed. Robert Simpson (Harmondsworth, 1966).
- Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai, Letoppis Moyey Muzykalnoy Zhizni (St. Petersburg, 1909), published in English as My Musical Life (New York: Knopf, 1925, 3rd ed. 1942). ISBN n/a.
- Steinberg, Michael, The Symphony (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ISBN 0-19-512665-3 (paperback)
- Taruskin, Richard, On Russian Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). ISBN 9780520268067.