Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, op. 74 (“ Pathétique”)

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            This symphony is Tchaikovsky’s last work—he died of cholera only nine days after its première—and it is universally hailed as one of his finest.  It exhibits all of the characteristic passion and melodic beauty for which the composer justly is known, and is suffused with a dark and tragic essence.  Tchaikovsky struggled all of his life with his identity, fears of social rejection, and frustrated relationships with others.  By the end of his life these issues had surely come to a head, and the composer freely spoke with his brother of the reflection of his suffering in this final, gripping composition.   There is even a current musicological fight over whether or not he poisoned himself to end his life (under threat of social disgrace), or deliberately drank the un-boiled glass of water during an epidemic.    In any case, the circumstances of his life’s final struggles are manifest in this beautiful and tragic work.  In the event, he had at first actually considered “Tragic” as a subtitle for the symphony, but his brother suggested the Russian for “pathos,” and the French equivalent, “pathétique,” is the evocative descriptor that we all know.   But, be aware of inexact translations--there is nothing pathetic here.

            The first movement is conventional in its form, but the mature composer exhibits a sense of tight construction, and weaves the movement with his characteristic contrast of exciting, dynamic motives and delicious lyrical melodies.  The mood for the entire symphony is set at the very beginning by the brooding bassoon solo. The second movement is one of the most well known of his symphonic movements, cast as it is in five-four time, an absolutely innovative use of the metre in art music (is it not unknown in Russian folk music).  The main theme and its manipulation is so smooth and adroit that it is altogether easy to forget the unusual time signature, and simply experience the music as being some kind of waltz with a “limp.”  And remember, no one excelled Tchaikovsky in the waltz.   The third movement is an exciting and optimistic march, but the heavy brass and snappy rhythms notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem a military march at all.  Rather, it is a march from the world of the ballet—the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty come to my mind.  No Shostokovitchian Russian soldiers are goose stepping here!  The final movement in many respects is the characteristic movement of the symphony.  It is most unusual in that it ends softly—very softly.   No Romantic symphony had ever ended that way—they end loud and with a bang—right?   And great applause!  But in this case the agony and beauty of this reflection of the composer’s life and experience terminates in a final expiration that is remarkable for its challenging softness.   “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan