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 entitled the work "The Passionate Symphony", employing a Russian word, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning "passionate" or "emotional", that was then mistranslated into French as pathétique, "evoking pity", yet the mistranslation survived subsequent productions in every country but Russia. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October of that year,[1] 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.[2][3] 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 4/16 December, conducted by Vasily Safonov.[4] 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.[5] 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."[5] In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir "Bob" Davydov:

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.[6]

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.[6]

The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on 19 October for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving "in excellent spirits."[7] 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.[7] 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."[8]


Tchaikovsky critic Richard Taruskin writes, "Suicide theories were much stimulated by the Sixth Symphony, which was first performed under the composer's baton only nine days before his demise, with its lugubrious finale (ending morendo, 'dying away'), its brief but conspicuous allusion to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement and above all its easily misread subtitle. . . . When the symphony was done again a couple of weeks later, in memoriam and with subtitle in place, everyone listened hard for portents, and that is how the symphony became a transparent suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. 'Homosexual tragedy' came later."[9] Yet critic David Brown describes the idea of the Sixth Symphony as some sort of suicide note as "patent nonsense".[10] Says critic Alexander Poznansky, "Since the arrival of the 'court of honour' theory in the West, performances of Tchaikovsky's last symphony are almost invariably accompanied by annotations treating it as a testimony of homosexual martyrdom."[11] Other scholars, including Michael Paul Smith, believe that with or without the supposed 'court of honour' sentence, there is no way that Tchaikovsky could have known the time of his own death while composing his last masterpiece.

It has been claimed[12] that Soviet orchestras, faced with the problem of an enormously popular yet profoundly pessimistic piece, switched the order of the last two movements in order to bring the work to a triumphant conclusion in line with the principles of Socialist realism.


The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means "passionate" or "emotional," not "arousing pity," but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaya or "Program Symphony") but realized that would encourage curiosity about the program, 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,[13] 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.[14] It was published in reduction by Jurgenson of Moscow in 1893,[15] and by Robert Forberg of Leipzig in 1894.[16]

Dedication and suggested programs[edit]

Tchaikovsky's "Cross"-motive, associated with the crucifixion, himself, and Tristan, a variation of which first appears in mm.1-2 of his Pathétique Symphony[17] About this sound Play . Tchaikovsky identified with and associated the cross-motif with "star-cross'd lovers" in general, such as in Romeo and Juliet.[17]

Tchaikovsky dedicated the Pathétique to his nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Davydov, whom he greatly admired.[18]

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.[19]

A suggested program has been what Taruskin disparagingly termed "symphony as suicide note."[20] 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".[20] Countering this is Tchaikovsky's statement on 26 September/8 October 1893 that he was in no mood to write any sort of requiem. This was in reply to a suggestion from his close friend Grand Duke Konstantin that he write a requiem for their mutual friend the writer Aleksey Apukhtin, who had died in late August, just as Tchaikovsky was completing the Pathétique.[21][22]

Tchaikovsky specialist David Brown suggests that the symphony deals with the power of Fate in life and death.[23] 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.[23] 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)."[24]


The symphony is scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam (ad libitum) and strings.


The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo (B minor) – Andante (D major in the exposition / B major in the recapitulation)
    The movement, in sonata form, frequently alternates speed, mood, and key, with the main key being B minor. It opens quietly with a low bassoon melody. Violins appear with the first theme of the Allegro, a faster variant of the slow opening melody, which eventually leads to the secondary theme in D major. The energetic development section begins abruptly, with an outburst from the orchestra, culminating in a refrain supported by brass and timpani. The movement concludes with the secondary theme in the recapitulation (as the first theme is omitted, because of the tense in the development section) and a coda where both parts are in B major, finally ending very quietly.
  2. Allegro con grazia (D major–B minor–D major)
    This dance movement, in ternary form, is in 5/4 time. It has been described as a "limping" waltz. The opening contrasts with the darker B section where the timpani sound on every beat. A graceful coda also ends the movement in quietness.
  3. Allegro molto vivace (G majorE major – G major)
    The scherzo is in a compound meter – 12/8 and 4/4, and in sonata form (without development). It begins with strings in a fast, exciting motif playing semiquavers against a woodwind 4/4 meter. It leads to the E major secondary theme in the exposition beginning with clarinet solo with string accompaniment. The opening theme reappears, now the first theme in the recapitulation, which later leads to the secondary theme, but this time in G major. The movement ends with a coda triumphantly, almost as a deceptive finale.
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso (B minor) – Andante (D major)
    Back in B minor, the slow movement is in ternary form with some elements from sonata form. The opening melody on the first and second violins appears frequently through the movement. A calmer D major segment builds into a full orchestral palette with brass and percussion, then leading into the restatement of the opening theme. The B minor coda, which is melancholic and mournful features a rhythm that resembles that of the D major section. The melody is then repeated with lower notes on cellos and tuba, and finally fading away in B minor.

Among Tchaikovsky's six symphonies, this is the only one that ends in a minor key. His first, second, fourth and fifth symphonies, plus the Manfred Symphony, are all minor-key symphonies that end in the tonic major, while the home key of his third symphony is D major, even though it begins in D minor.

In popular culture[edit]

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. It was also used to great effect in one of the early Cinerama movies in the mid-50s.

Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Sixth can be 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. In addition, Tchaikovsky's Sixth is featured in the sci-fi video game Destiny, during the mission The Last Warmind, in which the player must defend Rasputin, an old planetary defense system.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony has also been featured during the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremony, being danced by Russia's national ballet company.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth plays a major role in E. M. Forster's novel Maurice, where it serves as a veiled reference to homosexuality.[25]


  1. ^ Dates written with a "/" mean that the date before the "/" is the Julian calendar date and the date after the "/" is the Gregorian calendar date. See "Adoption of the Gregorian calendar#Adoption in Eastern Europe".
  2. ^ Steinberg, 635.
  3. ^ Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, p. 603
  4. ^ Tchaikovsky
  5. ^ a b Bagar, 754.
  6. ^ a b qtd. in Bagar, 754.
  7. ^ a b Bagar, 755.
  8. ^ qtd. in Bagar, 755.
  9. ^ Taruskin, Richard (1 July 2000). "The Essential Tchaikovsky". Russian Life. 
  10. ^ Brown, David (Nov 1997). "How Did Tchaikovsky Come to Die: And Does It Really Matter". Music & Letters. Oxford University Press. 78 (4): 581–588. JSTOR 737640. doi:10.1093/ml/78.4.581. 
  11. ^ Poznansky, Alexander (Aug 1998). "'Tchaikovsky's Last Days': I". Music & Letters. Oxford University Press. 79 (3): 463–467. JSTOR 855392. doi:10.1093/ml/79.3.463-c. 
  12. ^ Fritz Spiegl, "Music Through the Looking Glass", Routledge & Kegan Paul (1984).
  13. ^ Listen to "Discovering Music - Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony".  from 2:30
  14. ^ Steinberg, 638.
  15. ^ see IMSLP
  16. ^ coproduction with Jurgenson of Moscow most likely; also, see "Hofmeisters Monatsberichte" (in German). March 1894. Retrieved November 22, 2012. 
  17. ^ a b Jackson, Timothy (1999). Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), p.51. ISBN 0-521-64676-6.
  18. ^ Poznansky, Quest, 558.
  19. ^ Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, 339–340.
  20. ^ a b Taruskin, 133.
  21. ^ Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, p. 569
  22. ^ Tchaikovsky Research: Aleksey Apukhtin. Retrieved 21 June 2015
  23. ^ a b Brown, Final Years, 445.
  24. ^ David Brown, Final Years, 388.
  25. ^ 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.
  • Ritzarev, Marina, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique and Russian Culture (Ashgate, 2014). ISBN 9781472424112.
  • 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.

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