Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique")

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 50 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1893
World Premiere: 16 October (jul.)/28 October (greg.) 1893 (St. Petersburg)

Table of Contents

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique in 5 Sentences

The Symphony No. 6, nicknamed Pathétique (“the Solemn”), is the last work by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is often the case that last works come about “by chance”, but in this case it is different: Tchaikovsky had planned his Symphony No. 6 from the beginning as the “last keystone” of his creative work. Tchaikovsky himself has also said that the symphony follows a program, the details of which, however, are not known. The unusually extensive and slow final movement seems like a requiem, which is reinforced by the fact that Tchaikovsky died under mysterious circumstances only 9 days after the premiere.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

Highlight 1: first movement – Requiem and Funeral March

The somber character of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 is evident from the very first movement. The movement begins with a slow introduction, and at the end of the movement there is a chorale reminiscent of funeral march music, and even a quotation from the Russian requiem mass:

Highlight 2: second movement - "Russian waltz"

The second movement brings some lightening after the somber first movement. One is reminded of a waltz, without it being a true waltz. Instead, Tchaikovsky writes this movement in 5/4 time, which is widely used in Russian folk music:

Highlight 3: third movement – renewed marching sounds

The third movement revisits the idea of (funeral) march music:

Highlight 4: fourth movement – hopelessly fading away

The fourth movement is the most famous movement in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. It is also the last piece of music Tchaikovsky wrote in his lifetime, and anyone listening to this movement quickly realizes that this is not exactly a triumphant farewell to life. The main theme is dominated by sighing motives; at the end, Tchaikovsky lets his Symphony No. 6 fade away with a low chord in the strings on B minor (the key of the otherworldly, see the “Questions and Answers” below):

3 Questions and Answers about Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6

Question 1: What is the nickname of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony?

Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony bears the epithet “Pathétique” (“the Solemn”). Originally it was to be called “Program Symphony,” but Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest suggested “Pathétique,” which Tchaikovsky liked better. By the way, another famous “Pathétique” is Beethoven’s eighth piano sonata.

Question 2: Who conducted the first performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6?

Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere himself. He died only 9 days later under mysterious circumstances.

Question 3: What does the final chord in B minor mean?

B minor is a special key. Across music history, it stands for the “otherworldly,” for the “incomprehensible.” Many works that evoke transcendental associations are in B minor, for example Bach’s B minor Mass, Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Liszt’s B minor Sonata.

2 Recommended Recordings of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6

Recording 1: NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze

The NDR Radiophilharmonie and chief conductor Andrew Manze invest so much energy and passion in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” – it’s fantastic:

Recording 2: hr Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier

How much this last movement takes you away emotionally becomes clear in this performance with the hr-Sinfonieorchester and Lionel Bringuier. For almost a full minute after the end of the work, there is silence:

1 Quote about Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6

What have you done! But this is a requiem, a real requiem!

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