It begins with a moaning theme in low bassoons, creating an atmosphere of inwardness and shadow. This is his most personal symphony, all his sorrows on display. “”jan swafford, Language of the Spirit
it was that same instrument at a much higher register, that twenty years later introduced stravinsky’s Rites of Spring; so high a register that camille saint-saens, who was present at the premier, sarcastically remarked ‘What instrument is that?”—and promptly left the theatre.
no doubt the bassoon’s sombre croon at the opening of this symphony was in stravinsky’s rearview when he found himself in need of an introduction to his ‘dance to the death’.
The grieving and the moments of fraught hope in the Sixth are responses to a particular tragedy; they are what the romantics called Weltschmerz, world-pain, the innate sorrow of living itself. “”jan swafford, Language of the Spirit
here too there is a ‘to the death’, albeit without any cause or light enough for dancing: ten days after it’s premiere in 1893 pyotr ilyich tchaikovsky drank a glass of water he failed to first boil (boiling water at that time in moscow was habitual knowledge to the point of muscle memory) and died that same evening from rapid onset of cholera. there isn’t an insubstantial amount of pith to the suspicion of his intentions when he lifted that glass to his mouth. ‘I think this is death.’ he said to his brother that evening…short and understated words for a composer whose signature (the y in tchaikovsky swoops beneath the whole name like a balletic gesture)—the same gestures that populate his symphonies enough to earn him the criticism of excessive lyricism. those final words however, in light of this sixth symphony, sounds like an addendum—this sixth symphony has the density of a dostoevskian novel, whose cerebral gloominess is the full expression of those last words.
He once said he would be sorry if his symphonies only meant a progression of harmonies, rhythms and modulations: ‘Should not a symphony reveal those wordless urges that hide in the heart, asking earnestly for expression? “” robert jacobson, program notes for the record
amid the gloominess of that cerebral density are the lush and swelling arcs described by the string section, rising to the precipitous heights of an avalanche and comes crashing with thunderous proclamations from the timpani and brass sections in the first movement (Allegro ma non tanto); these bombastic crescendos are the kind of music that was fodder for early hollywood scores. they were used to force and fabricate a heightened emotional intensity, but were in their original context a fleeting and indeterminably nuanced ray of desperation in a fog of despair. and the light that pierces that fog the most in the Pathétique is it’s wistful theme: floating above strings, muscled by the horn sections, and piped, in solitary moments, by the clarinet.
Nowhere else has [Tchaikovsky] encountered so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme; and the slow Finale, with its complete simplicity of despair, is a stroke of genius which solves all the artistic problems that have proved most baffling to symphonic writers since Beethoven. The whole work carries conviction without the slightest sense of effort; and its most celebrated features …. are thrown into their right relief by developments far more powerful, terse and highly organised than Tchaikovsky has achieved in any other work …. All Tchaikovsky’s music is dramatic; and the Pathétique Symphony is the most dramatic of all his works. “” donald tovey
The descriptive title of this symphony—‘Pathétique’—is one way of describing Tchaikovsky’s own life, begun at Votkinsk in 1840 “” robert jacobson, program notes for the record
Funk & Wagnalls Recording. Printed in Canada // Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) // Sixth Symphony (The Pathetique)
Berlin Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Jurgens
Adagio—Allegro ma non troppo (in slow time—brisk, but not too fast)
Allegro con grazia (brisk, with grace)
Allegro molto vivace (very fast)
Finale: Adagio lamentoso—andane