MasterWorks One: Final Words

Saturday, October 18, 2003 - 8:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre


Benjamin Britten - Russian Funeral
Edward Elgar - Cello Concerto in E Minor
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathetique"
Program Notes


SYMPHONY No. 6 in B minor, Op.74

Composed: 1893
Premiered: Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1893

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro con grazia
  3. Allegro molto vivace
  4. Adagio lamentoso

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the first performance of this grief-stricken symphony, leaving many to wonder if it is the world’s first symphonic suicide note. The symphony’s famous French “title” – Pathétique – is misleading. Tchaikovsky called it Pateticheskaya – "emotional” – which has little to do with the French word, with its overtones of “pitiable.” He also considered calling it “Program Symphony,” but decided he would never reveal the story that the work told – thus inaugurating a 150-year industry of speculative program notes (like this one).

The opening of the symphony was the Rite of Spring of its time – a bassoon solo asking the near-impossible feat of playing ppppp just before the first subject finally appears. The second subject is one of the most famous “big tunes” of all time, and the basis of many pop songs of varying degrees of taste. The lyrical nature of both themes is severely challenged in the development, and the recapitulation presents both in a far darker light than their first appearance. A brief quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem appears at the climax of the development – but why?

The second movement is by far the strangest of the whole work. Written in the then very unusual 5/4 meter, it is essentially a waltz that misses a beat every other measure, creating an unmistakable feeling of unease.

The last two movements seem to be the wrong way round. The Allegro scurries along in almost bracing optimism – especially the jaunty second subject, given to the clarinet – before finally giving way to a martial variant of the clarinet melody that we somehow know is not as cheerful as it sounds. It is by far Tchaikovsky’s most stirring and convincing symphonic finale. Except it isn’t the finale.

Uniquely for its entire century, the symphony ends with a slow movement, based on a simple falling minor-scale melody buried in counterpoint among the violins. The very B-minor opening gives way to a D major section that feels like the trio of a funeral march; only the triple meter prevents the whole scenario turning into a cortège, and the sensation of doom is undeniable. The brass intone what sounds like a eulogy for the departed before the D major material returns in full minor-key mourning. The symphony ends in the minor – the only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies to do so. But it doesn’t “end” – it fades away. Days after the world first heard this astonishing music, Tchaikovsky did very much the opposite, without explanation (like the symphony); the world was simply told that he was dead.

— Program notes by Bill Scanlan Murphy

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