Symphony Study 42 | Tchaikovsky: Symphony 6 “Pathétique”

by Glenn on March 26, 2016

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74, Pathétique
First performance: Saint Petersburg | 28 October 1893

i. Adagio—Allegro non troppo—Andante—Allegro vivo—Andante come prima—Andante mosso
ii. Allegro con grazia
iii. Allegro molto vivace
iv. Adagio lamentoso—Andante

Earlier this week I listened to a recording of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and followed a score to focus my listening. If there was something to criticize about this recording it’s that there is so much reverb, some clarity is lost. It’s all very lush and gorgeously blended, but sometimes you miss the definition. But it’s beautiful.

The last time I recall hearing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was on 4 January 2003 with the Oregon Symphony and James DePreist, their then (and now late) conductor.

Based on what I’ve heard of these latter Tchaikovsky Symphonies the last couple of weeks, I hear artists approach Tchaikovsky in three ways:

1. The notes and just the notes—let the score speak for itself; just play what Tchaikovsky wrote in all its starkness. This is how I interpret what Evgeny Mravinsky did when he recorded these works with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

2. Emotional heightening—understand that Tchaikovsky is writing emotional music, add to that feeling. This is the approach Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra took. They played with a tear in their eyes.

3. The beautification project—this is what Mr. Karajan did with the Berlin Philharmonic. Whatever the score may be saying to play is over-ridden by the highest value, which is beauty.

I watched an assessment that Sir Simon Rattle, the current conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, gave on the subject of Mr. Karajan on the 25th anniversary of his death where he addresses this issue of beauty among other things.

He has fascinating things to say about Mr. Karajan, who became the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor on 13 December 1954 and held the post until 1989, shortly before he died. Mr. Rattle clearly respects Mr. Karajan and yet he doesn’t understand the way he related to his orchestra:

“The idea of a conductor who would not make any visual contact with his orchestra at all is still something that I find utterly inexplicable.”

I especially thought the metaphor of an orchestra as an English garden, one of the lessons Mr. Rattle learned from Mr. Karajan, was insightful. And I liked how Sir Simon referred to Mr. Karajan as the “emperor of legato.” This is apt, I think. Legato playing is one of the ways he beautifies Tchaikovsky.

There is a passage early in the first movement of the Symphony No. 6 that I normally hear played with a crispness and distinct articulation. Here is how Mr. Karajan takes this passage:

Some critics don’t know what to do with Tchaikovsky. They don’t like his music, but his music is really popular (in the relatively unpopular medium of symphonic music). I think the core of the argument is found in a line by Joe Queenan:

“Tchaikovsky is the Paul McCartney of classical music, an endless font of catchy tunes whose reputation has long suffered because critics find his work a bit sappy.”

The first movement contains one of the great melodies in all of classical music. It soars and weeps all at once.

The second movement is a waltz in 5/4. Steinberg says, “Tchaikovsky was a wonderful waltz composer—after his slightly older contemporary in Vienna the best of his time.”

The third movement march is exhilarating for the audience and demanding for the orchestra. (In the Karajan recording, the pace is pretty fast, requiring virtuosity.) In writing about the third movement march, Steinberg notes “Tchaikovsky’s mastery at achieving astonishing variety—and volume—with a most economically constituted orchestra.”

The last movement has another great tune, though this one is incredibly sad. The Russian idea of “pathétique” is impassioned suffering, which we hear in this movement.

Leonard Bernstein once gave an analysis of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony where he addresses some of the complaints of critics by identifying the unifying elements of scales and fourths that Tchaikovsky uses throughout this symphony.

I would have missed a connection between the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky and the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler were it not for a footnote in Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony:

“Deryk Cooke was the first to point out that the design of the Mahler Ninth is modeled on that of the Pathétique. … The Tchaikovsky pieces that appeared most often in Mahler’s programs were the Pathétique and the Manfred Symphony.”

The standard, early symphony from the Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven era had four movements (with exceptions of course, for example, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 “Prague” has no minuet and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” has five movements). In these standard, early symphonies, two faster movements bookend two slower inner movements.

Tchaikovsky inverts the normal pattern. Slow movements frame faster movements, a pattern that Mahler would adopt.

Because it begins and ends quietly (although there are some moments of speed and vehemence—and one major surprise—in the first movement, the big tune and the overall feel is slow), the Sixth has an innovative quality about it.

It was not the first big orchestral work to finish quietly, but this one does not quite have closure at the end. You actually aren’t sure when it ends, which was confusing for the first audiences.

This work is associate with death for a couple of reasons.

First, Tchaikovsky died of cholera just nine days after he conducted the premiere of this work. Tchaikovsky drank unboiled water and died four days later. As Steinberg puts it, “It was a fatal mistake,” although there are those who want it to be more than a mistake—they want it to be a suicide. This theory emerged in the late 1970’s. The idea was that a group of Tchaikovsky’s peers discovered him in a same-sex liaison and condemned him to death by disease-ridden water. Steinberg takes some time on this issue. He doesn’t believe the conspiracy, but there’s no explanation for why Tchaikovsky would make a terminal error like this. It adds poignancy to the work.

Second, the end is a kind of dying in musical terms. As I listened to it this week, I was taken to my father’s death bed, though now that it’s been more than ten years, the memory wasn’t accompanied by the waves of grief that were part of these kinds of memories early on. As the music slowed—the basses sounding like a slowing heart beat—I remembered my dad’s death rattles as his lungs filled with fluid and his breathing slowed and he peacefully slipped away. And I remember my mom asking, “Is he gone?” The nurse who was with us got out her stethoscope and checked. He was gone.

One of the questions I am thinking about in this study is How should a Christian relate to the symphonic art? That question could be taken a couple of ways. It could mean How should a Christian evaluate a symphony like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth? I’m interested in an answer, but not here and not today.

Tchaikovsky’s symphony may be a musical work for us to evaluate, but it is also a work that evaluates us.

If art imitates life and if Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is about death (see here for Tom Service’s exploration of how this symphony is not but actually is about death), then how does a Christian think about death? In my case, especially as I think about my father’s death, I remember words from the Apocrypha:

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” (The Book of Wisdom 3:1–3, RSVA)

It was unintentional that I listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony during passion week. Listening to a symphony about dying on a week where we remember the death of Jesus the Messiah, I see a future beyond the grave:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … (1 Peter 1:1–3, NIV)

Tomorrow is Easter. It occurs to me that Peter gave the first sermon and it was a kind of Easter sermon:

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2: 22–24, NIV)





One comment

[…] This past week I listened to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique.” The late program annotator, Michael Steinberg, noted “Tchaikovsky’s mastery at achieving astonishing variety—and volume—with a most economically constituted orchestra.” This got me thinking of a comparison between Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Tchaikovsky does more with less. Mahler has more but is remarkably restrained. […]

by Mahler’s Resurrection « on 27 March 2016 at 9:20 am. #