Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6

In January 1893, Tchaikovsky was on his way back home when he stopped for two weeks in Odessa. His experience would give us some insight about a celebrity being stalked by the press and the public. Every move and detail of his life was reported in the press. The Odessa public was being thrilled by the current production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. A steady stream of people came to his hotel room—from people asking for his autograph to parents who had brought their potential child prodigies to play for him. Although he was a bit uneasy about this attention, he was able to overcome the depression that had beset him before his arrival.

During these frantic days, it was also the occasion for the only surviving portrait of him to be painted by the artist Nikolai Kuznetsov. This picture succeeds in capturing the emotional and intellectual intensity of Tchaikovsky the creator. Now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the portrait preserves an image of the composer as he was in the last years of his life. When he arrived in Klin, his inspiration and confidence were lifted enough so that within four days he had sketched out on paper the first movement and outlined in his mind the other three movements of the Symphony No. 6 in B Minor. In a letter to his nephew Bob Davydov, to whom the Symphony is dedicated, he wrote: “You cannot imagine what bliss I feel, assured that my time had not yet passed and that I can still work.” As he wrote to Bob on February 11, he mentioned that there had come to him the idea for another symphony, "this time with a program, but with such a program that it will remain a mystery to everyone—let them guess." The new work, he told his nephew, would simply be called "Program Symphony (no. 6)." Even to Bob he would say only that "the program itself, whatever it may be, is imbued with subjectivity, and quite often during my wanderings, composing it in my mind, I wept terribly.” In 1907 the Czech musicologist Rudolph Batka inquired of the composer’s brother Modest the actual meaning of his brother's last masterpiece. He received this answer: "You would like to know the program of the Sixth Symphony, but unfortunately I cannot tell you anything, since my brother kept it secret in his thoughts. He carried this secret with him to the grave."

Several months later, after he had gone to London to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, Tchaikovsky finally had to attach a title to his new Symphony. He finally decided on Pathétique, which does not mean “pathetic.” The French word (and its Russian equivalent) contain more a sense of the words “emotive, impassioned, or full of pathos.”

In the Sixth Symphony the specter of death hangs about the first and fourth movements, but joy does raise it head in the second and third sections. The opening movement is focused upon two themes: a highly romantic theme filled with tender feelings, and a more violent theme filled with hostility and tension. Fortunately, the romantic theme becomes the dominant mood that closes the movement. This leads appropriately to the lighter mood of a waltz-like movement that is scored in the unlikely meter of 5/4.

The third movement is perhaps the most joyous and triumphant of all and the composer clearly could have ended the music here and everyone would have felt completely satisfied. However, Tchaikovsky apparently wanted us to leave with more of a question mark in our thoughts. The final movement begins with a painful introspective theme stated by the strings. It does its best to become a positive statement on life and its tribulations but it eventually succumbs to a mood of resignation and quietude at the close.

For Tchai­kovsky there evidently arose an irresistible desire to retell in music the story of his life and his soul and to dedicate it to Bob so that his beloved nephew might be able to share and appreciate all that he himself had gone through. One does wonder that in spite of the fact that there were no horribly negative events in the composer’s life, why is the symphony so tragic in tone? . He was at the peak of his creativity, famous, and loved by those whom he loved. Tchai­kovsky himself had little desire to turn back the clock. As he once wrote to his cousin Anna, he would never agree to be made young again and relive his life. "Once is enough," he claimed. "Of course, one regrets the past .... [But] each age has its charm and its good sides, and the important thing is not to remain young forever but to have as little physical and moral suffering as possible. I do not know what sort of old man I shall be, but for the time being, I cannot help recognizing that the sum of the blessings I now enjoy is far greater than that granted me in my youth.” So the controversy will continue, and it will probably be argued about in books and articles for many years to come. Such is the wonder and mystery of music.

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