Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) plays Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique, the final completed symphony of the Russian composer. Tchaikovsky dedicated the Pathétique to his nephew, Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, whom he greatly admired.
Written between February and the end of August 1893, the work premiered in Saint Petersburg in October 1893, just over a week before the composer’s death. The performance conducted by the composer himself.
The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Patetitčeskaja), a better translation of “passionate” or “emotional” in English, not “arousing pity,” but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaya 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.
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)
- Allegro molto vivace (G major – E major – G major)
- Finale: Adagio lamentoso – Andante (B minor – D major – B minor) – Ending in B minor, this symphony is the only one ending in a minor key among all the symphonies by Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony explores the metaphysics of death, musically contrasting the idealism of humankind and our naive dreams of transcendence with our pathetic material condition, the fact that we are made of flesh and blood, and that we will all die. The composer hinted to his friends and admirers that the work might contain secret messages, but he never told them what they were. “Let them guess,” he said.
What caused the most guessing is an obvious quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem just after the climax of the first movement. This reference to a sacred ritual is paired, at the end of the fourth movement, with a symphonic enactment of the actual experience of death. The orchestra articulates, through morendo dynamics and the darkest instrumental coloring possible, the dying of the light. Ultimately, however, death is unknowable, and the structure of each of the movements is thus as irrational as its subject matter. Conventional forms are shunned as are conventional harmonic patterns. Even the movement between tonal areas or keys is unusual: Rather than using fifths, or fourths, or even thirds, Tchaikovsky moves between keys related by semitone, lending a leaden affect to the proceedings. And then there are the weird references to fanfares, waltzes, and marches-a patchwork of half-remembered musical tropes that suggests the score is a collection of deathbed memories. Each of these references is distorted, rendered strange. The second movement, for example, is a waltz with five beats to the measure instead of the familiar three.
Tchaikovsky was pleased with the “Pathétique,” and told his publisher that he was extremely proud of himself for assembling such a gorgeous work. It was composed during a wonderful time in his life-a life he had no sense was about to end. During an outing to the theater in his final week, he was disheartened when the conversation with his brother and their friends turned grim. He changed the topic, declaring, in the flush of the success of the “Pathétique,” that he was certain he would “live a long time.”