Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetic"), in B minor, Opus 74
( Originally Published 1935 )
I. Adagio; Allegro non troppo
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso
But there is no question: the "Symphonie Pathetique," Tchaikovsky's Sixth and last, is his masterpiece, one which will endure as long as any of his-music is known. Nowhere else has he approached he burning intensity and the sable splendor of this score. In no other place has he revealed himself with. equal completeness and mastery of expression. The "Symphonie Pathetique" made such an impression upon the public that for a time it was overplayed. Thereafter it was underpraised. It remains a human document of immense pathos and tragedy. Some are repelled by the hysteria and self-laceration of pages of the music. To this it can only be replied that each of us has a right to the music we like, and vice versa; and that so far as Tchaikovsky was concerned, he never could compose from a safe place. He had a profound humanity and a native sweetness and tenderness, with a tortured sensibility. And he was a very gifted composer. Suffering and knowledge overwhelmed him. The eyes of his spirit saw things they would fain not have seen. He tells us what they saw in a voice that often chokes with rage and pity.
This symphony was Tchaikovsky's swan song. Nine days after its first performance, which he conducted, he died of cholera, and the circumstances of his taking off were so sudden as to give rise to the theory, still widely believed, that following his tonal deposition he committed suicide. There is, however, no reason to doubt Modeste Tchaikovsky's account of his brother's end, told in one of the most fascinating of musical biographies. Tchaikovsky drank a glass of-unboiled water and contracted the disease that sent him quickly to his grave. Some curious coincidences gave added color to the suicide theory, such as the fact that the composer had busied himself in the months preceding with the clearing up of documents, revisions of scores, and the destruction of personal records. These, how-ever, appear only as the actions of a methodical worker. Existence had been cruel enough to furnish Tchaikovsky with more than material for a tragic symphony. His essentially noble and compassionate nature, his strange and frustrated relations with life, were sufficient to darken any spirit. The man's inordinate craving for affection had been cruelly wounded by the estrangement of Mathilde von Meck, whose name Tchaikovsky uttered reproachfully in his dying delirium. He did not know that his former benefactress and dearest friend had become the victim of mental derangement, nor was he the man to believe that on the other side of the grave the needful word of understanding could be uttered.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky was happy in the creation of this symphony. He knew that he had achieved his truth, and produced a great work, despite its cold reception at the first performance. Some historians, Modeste among them, say that the coldness of the audience was due to the fact that Tchaikovsky con-ducted. He was not an effective leader or interpreter even of his own music. He could not face an orchestra with confidence, still less force it to do his exact bidding. A musician who played under him has told us of a rehearsal with the composer on the conductor's stand—frightened, apologetic, and ever and anon furtively reaching to his back pocket for a flask of courage. But Rimsky-Korsakoff heard the first performance of the "Pathetique"; he says that the only fault was the public's slowness to appreciate such an original score. Be all that as it may, Tchaikovsky was well aware that his Sixth symphony was "the best, especially the most open-hearted [ours the italics] of all my works." To his colleague Ippblitoff-Ivanoff, a kindly old man who lives and flourishes in Moscow at the time of this writing, he wrote, "I told you I had completed a symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a symphony which I certainly shall not tear up." He sends a similar message to Jurgenson, the publisher: "I give you my word that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy, in the knowledge that I have written a good piece." It is hard to dismiss regretful thoughts of what Tchaikovsky might have accomplished, now that he, had fully discovered himself as an artist, if he had lived beyond fifty-three.
Tchaikovsky let it be known that this symphony had a story, but he did not tell what that story was, which is fortunate, since the work is so much greater than any plot could be. But there was the question of naming the symphony—which, by the way, he had sketched on the ocean during his return to Russia from America in 1891. The morning after the first performance of the work from manuscript in what was then St. Petersburg, October 28, 1893, Modeste Tchaikovsky found his brother at a tea-table with the music in his hand. The composer wanted to be-stow some title more definite than that of "Symphony No. 6" before sending the' score to the publisher. What should it be? Should it be, for example, "Pro-gram Symphony"? But what did that: signify if the symphony was given no program? Modeste suggested "Tragic," but Tchaikovsky was not satisfied. Modeste left the room; when on the other side of the door the word "Pathetic" came to him, and he returned. Tchaikovsky was delighted. "Splendid, Modi, bravo! `Pathetic' "—"And he wrote in my presence," says Modeste, "the title that will always remain."
The symphony has an unusual succession of movements and peculiarities of form. The last movement, for example, is not a brilliant ending, but a dirge. The most exciting movement is the one before the last —the terrible march. There is no slow movement, but instead, for the second 'part, a dance in the strange and perturbing rhythm of five-four. It will be seen that the symphonic structure is here wholly subordinate to the subjective idea.
The first movement exposes immediately a principal theme, clad in the blackest colors of the orchestra. Yes! it is pitch-black, and brother to the worm. With the quick tempo of the major part of the movement, fragments of this theme are tossed from instrument to instrument. Now it is picked to pieces` by wind or strings; now it is shrieked hysterically by the trumpet. In spite of the length and diversity of the movement, with its many dramatic episodes, the composer paints his picture with extraordinary concentration and with passionate distinctness. He obtains from his instruments extraordinary effects of blackness contrasted with flaring light, as when, early in the movement, the despairing cry of the trumpet cuts through the whizzing strings; or when, over yawning depths, the trombones sound a spectral chant, taken, according to Edwin Evans, from the Russian Requiem. At one moment the orchestra sings passionately. At another it lashes itself to frantic pitches of excitement, or falls to yet deeper levels of lassitude. :Et is a striking fact that the main theme, so prevalent throughout the movement, never returns in its complete original form. It is the haunting second theme which retains its exact shape and most appealing melodic curve. That theme is as strongly distinguished by its instrumentation as by its melody. It is given the violins with an effect of torturing and undismissable remembrance. It is thrown into the greater prominence, on repetition, by the richness of its orchestral dress.
A climax, very originally conceived, precedes the return of this second theme. It follows an eruption of tone, after which the orchestra hurtles downward to depths which shudder and roar with rage—a passage made from the introductory theme. This detail of structure is cited as further testimony to the manner in which a composer of genius makes form and feeling one. The movement, for Tchaikovsky, is one of unprecedented richness of ideas, development and orchestration. Compared with this writing in this symphony, the best pages of preceding works are thin. And note the pizzicato scale which persistently descends, like inexorable destiny, as epilogue of the first movement.
The second movement is in the famous "five-four" rhythm, and a rare example of the rhythmic problem of five beats solved with entire naturalness. If the reader will reflect and experiment a little with the music he knows, he will quickly perceive that most melodies fall into patterns of either two beats or three beats or their multiples. The five-beat pattern is not symmetrical. It is instinctive, ordinarily, to make the five a design of either four or six. The conventional number of beats would here be six. But the music flows with astonishing naturalness, while the restlessness of the essentially asymmetrical arrangement is psychologically the truth of his unrest. It is in the alternative section of this five-four movement that Tchaikovsky makes unforgettable use of the drum. The drum relentlessly pounds the measure, its note rising and falling, while the strings wail over the dull thudding beat.
This is original, but the third movement is more astounding. Its desperate festivity is false, brutal and sardonic. Its psychological explanation is perhaps that of a neurotic and hysterical nature which keys itself up, for the moment, to a pitch of unconditional defiance and unnatural power. The wild and fantastic music passes like a nightmare. The beginning, with its whirling tonal will o' the wisps and evil exhilaration as of something unholy a-brewing, could accompany the scene of the witches on the heath in "Macbeth." And now the solo oboe snarls a first intimation of the march. From over the other side of the world a trombone and then a horn reply, and one remembers De Quincey's opium dream in which he heard music of preparation and suspense, and the sound of cavalcades filing off in the distance to the battlefield where an issue of undecipherable vastness was to be decided —an issue involving all human fate. There is indeed dreadful portent in this march of Tehaikovsky's, for which Mr. Hale, whom it is difficult not to quote, coined the one word—"battle drunk."
In spite of all the stirrings and anticipations, it is some time before the entire march theme is heard. The composer holds back his forces with an astonishing grip and control in preparation. There is here no going off half-loaded, as in other of Tchaikovsky's works. He stares you in the eye, an unswerving stare. The music gathers at his imperious command. The hordes of Russia and the battalions of mankind file by. Their tread shakes the earth, while the trumpets scream salute, and banners are flung to the sky. Hail Caesar! The unearthly cavalcade draws nearer. The march theme, heard first in fragments, has bit by bit pulled itself out like a lengthening telescope. The movement is a quarter completed when the clarinets, with various orchestral rejoinders, round out the theme. And the fury of the march accumulates. It sees red it chokes with choler. Drums and brass instruments go into an incoherent fury. Perhaps you did not know that a scale could become delirium? Listen to the sizzling scales of the string and wind sections that answer each other in Tchaikovsky's orchestra. At the last, quite suddenly, this orchestra subsides; it crouches like a beast, and then advances; it boils up over everything; it crashes down to destruction.
And this is the prelude to the inevitable end. In the finale the strings make requiem. Repeating the opening phrase, they sweep upward in a great sigh for poor vanquished life and the eternal farewell to warm and beautiful things. Over a pulsation of the horns a new threnody is sung. The orchestra rises and falls over a vibrating organ point, following which muted horns evilly mutter, and the gong tolls, and trombones in-tone a solemn chant. Then the melody that the horns accompanied is given the strings, which mournfully discourse together, until the phrase gradually disappears in the shadows. But a note of the double-basses persists a long time, like a throbbing pulse that will not be still.
This symphony is the last utterance of a great artist and an unfortunate man.