Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) was the first famous graduate of the then recently inaugurated St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied piano, flute, organ, music theory, and composition from 1862 to 1865. He was later recruited to be a founding member of the faculty at the newly created Moscow Conservatory. Reportedly an extreme taskmaster, Tchaikovsky resented the time that teaching stole from composing, although within just a few years he managed to write some of his early masterworks and most popular pieces, including the orchestral fantasy Romeo and Juliet (1869), the ballet Swan Lake (1875), the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1875), the opera Eugene Onegin (1879), and the Symphony No. 4 (1878).
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Tchaikovsky has something of a mixed reputation: He is loved for his great
tunes, yet derided for repeating them once too often with a great deal of
emotional embellishment in the strings. And he's been ill-served by scholarship;
biographers have tended to interpret his music based on incorrect perceptions of
his life. This is perhaps especially true of his great final symphony, the
"Pathétique." The symphony was completed and premiered close to the time of
Tchaikovsky's death, but was not a premonition of it. (Tchaikovsky died
unexpectedly during a cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg.) And while the music
is certainly "pathos-laden," or full of feeling, as the nickname suggests, the
morbid feelings in question are not personal.
Tchaikovsky's final symphony explores the metaphysics of death, musically
contrasting the idealism of humankind and our naive dreams of transcendence with
our pathetic material condition, the fact that we are made of flesh and blood,
and that we will all die. The composer hinted to his friends and admirers that
the work might contain secret messages, but he never told them what they were.
"Let them guess," he said.
What caused the most guessing is an obvious quotation from the Russian
Orthodox Requiem just after the climax of the first movement. This reference to
a sacred ritual is paired, at the end of the fourth movement, with a symphonic
enactment of the actual experience of death. The orchestra articulates, through
morendo dynamics and the darkest instrumental coloring possible, the
dying of the light. Ultimately, however, death is unknowable, and the structure
of each of the movements is thus as irrational as its subject matter.
Conventional forms are shunned as are conventional harmonic patterns. Even the
movement between tonal areas or keys is unusual: Rather than using fifths, or
fourths, or even thirds, Tchaikovsky moves between keys related by semitone,
lending a leaden affect to the proceedings. And then there are the weird
references to fanfares, waltzes, and marches-a patchwork of half-remembered
musical tropes that suggests the score is a collection of deathbed memories.
Each of these references is distorted, rendered strange. The second movement,
for example, is a waltz with five beats to the measure instead of the familiar
Tchaikovsky was pleased with the "Pathétique," and told his publisher that he
was extremely proud of himself for assembling such a gorgeous work. It was
composed during a wonderful time in his life-a life he had no sense was about to
end. During an outing to the theater in his final week, he was disheartened when
the conversation with his brother and their friends turned grim. He changed the
topic, declaring, in the flush of the success of the "Pathétique," that he was
certain he would "live a long time."
More extensive program notes are available here >
Valerie Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra performing the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique". Courtesy of LGM, Mezzo and the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre.
Mariinsky Orchestra | Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor | Courtesy of LGM, Mezzo, and the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
Gino Francesconi, Director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum, relates how Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 and Carnegie Hall are closely connected..
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 at Carnegie Hall on October 6.
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Carnegie Hall's director of artistic planning, Jeremy Geffen, reveals the background to and importance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique."