Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, Pathétique

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I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo; II. Allegro con gracia; III. Allegro molto vivace; IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso; Andante.

Nine days after the première of the Symphony No. 6, the composer died at the age of 53. This heartbreaking fact has entangled the symphony in suspicious narratives and dubious theories of the composer’s death, as if these narratives and theories gave the symphony something to be about. In 1894, the year after the composer’s death, the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw heard the Sixth Symphony and, indeed, felt that this music needed something to be about:

Tchaikovsky had a thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all…[He] could set the fateful drum rolling and make the trombones utter the sepulchral voice of destiny without any conceivable provocation. This last symphony of his is a veritable Castle of Otranto [Horace Walpole’s Gothic horror novel, 1764], with no real depth of mood anywhere in it, but full of tragic and supernatural episodes, which, though unmotivated, and produced by a glaringly obvious machinery, are nevertheless impressive and entertaining.

Like the tragic episodes in Tchaikovsky’s symphony, Tchaikovsky’s death appears to be every bit as “unmotivated” and unfortunate as the huge helmet that falls out of nowhere to crush young Conrad to death just before his wedding day in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

Biographers have endeavored to kill two birds with one stone: if they could figure out what motivated Tchaikovsky’s death, they would have also discovered what motivated the tragic elements of the Sixth Symphony: the agitated minor themes, the funerary processionals, and above all, the slow, anguished finale. One key might turn two locks!

Certain clues suggesting suicide may provide a more plausible explanation of Tchaikovsky’s death than his accidentally contracting cholera. There was the cryptic remark Tchaikovsky made to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov during the intermission immediately after the première of the symphony:

I [Rimsky-Korsakov] asked if he [Tchaikovsky] had any program for this composition. He said that of course he had, but that he did not wish to reveal it.

There is the alleged report to his colleague Nikolai Kashkin of a failed suicide attempt in 1877 when Tchaikovsky’s marital problems had come to a head. He was going to end his life in the frigid waters of the Moskva River, not by drowning, but by catching a fatal disease. Tchaikovsky fled the marriage, instead, and sought solace in Western Europe.

The thesis that Tchaikovsky’s death was a suicide resulting from considerable personal torture concerning his homosexuality is one that some biographers have embraced, and one that some analysts have applied to the critical study of the Sixth Symphony.

By contrast, revisionist scholars have, to quote Marina Frolova-Walker, “contended that the bulk of the evidence weighed against suicide, the ‘court of honor’ was a fiction and that Russian high society generally turned a blind eye to discreet homosexual behavior.”

We may hear Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony unburdened by the freight of suicide, and think of Tchaikovsky as an artist with long-range future plans that were cut short. But if this is the case, is Shaw right? Is the four-movement narrative — encompassing a bleak introduction, agitated opening theme, romantic contrasting theme, metrically irregular second movement, heroic third movement and lugubrious finale — a series of unmotivated episodes? Shaw is perhaps a bit extreme in his critique.

Tchaikovsky is extremely generous with the breathing room he affords musical sections within the symphonic movements. Substantial pauses set off contrasting themes and heighten other articulations within the movements. As one phase of the musical form ends, the music takes a breath, and then the next phase begins. The kind of continuity by which one musical character fluidly succeeds another, as in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, is mostly not found here. The silences and caesurae frame and isolate the episodes; this may be the basis of Shaw’s charge that the episodes are “entertaining,” but “unmotivated.” But there is one instance —when the end of the development comes crashing into the opening of the recapitulation—that produces so much rhythmic energy as to electrify the piece until its conclusion. There are many other details of harmonic association that connect the movements. And as isolated as the first movement’s famous Andante theme is --which not only affirms a key, but also affirms the future that lies beyond the bounds of the work proper -- it symbolizes the great Romantic narrative of the symphony. And it is a narrative that carries the work beyond the tawdriness of “honor courts” and alleged suicide.

Instrumentation: Three flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum, and strings.