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Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, op. 70 (“Pathétique”)

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, strings

Duration: 46 minutes in three movements.


THE COMPOSER – PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – Tchaikovsky’s last years were colored by the fact that he knew them as such and his earlier preoccupation with fate had to make room for a new one – mortality. This mindset did not create the maudlin atmosphere one might have expected and much of Tchaikovsky’s late work benefited from his uncharacteristically good spirits. It was time of legacy, not lethargy and he was as sharp compositionally as he had ever been.

THE MUSIC – First, a word about the subtitle. “Pathétique” in its Russian form does not mean what it does in English. Hardly “pathetic” or “pitiable,” in this context it was intended to conjure an “enthusiastic,” “passionate” and “emotional” experience. The 4th Symphony had a specific program attached to it while the 5th did not (an admittedly nebulous fact that has not kept biographers over the years from attempting to assign one). The 6th Symphony most certainly did have a program, but unlike the 4th, it was not at all specific. The fact that Tchaikovsky originally called it his “Program Symphony” did not mean that he planned to share the story with the world. He envisioned it from the start as an enigma and when considering the questions of future curious listeners he wrote, “let them guess.” Other than a mention that the symphony was “saturated with subjective feeling,” the specifics of the program are with him still. The structure of the “Pathétique” is unique and the juxtaposition of the third and last movements is particularly daring, even for today. The third movement is a march that builds to an incredible level of excitement and is so effective in its rousing climax that audiences, nearly without exception, still applaud luxuriously at the end of it. The ensuing finale is a patient funereal dream and fittingly, given Tchaikovsky’s matter-of-fact view of death and the beyond, it simply disappears into itself without comment or conclusion.

THE WORLD – Arthur Conan Doyle published The Final Problem in 1893, the story that ends with the death of Sherlock Holmes. Also that year, New Zealand became the world’s first self-governing nation to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

THE CONNECTION – Tchaikovsky 6 has only been programmed three times by the Utah Symphony since 2000. The most recent concerts were in 2009 under Emmanuel Villaume.