Passionate, Not Pathetic: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6

June 20, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D.

“Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight. He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.”

To begin with, it almost certainly isn’t a “suicide note.” And it isn’t the “homosexual tragedy” either. The fact that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died a mere nine days after conducting the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, and the fact that the circumstances and cause of his death remain murky to this day, combined with the actual nature of the work itself and the person to whom it was dedicated, have all inevitably—and irresistibly—led to much speculation about whether the composer wrote it with some sort of anticipation of his coming demise, or that the music was an artistic representation of the struggle and shame caused by his homosexuality.

The documentary evidence of the actual compositional process—which is ample—tends to speak against all this speculation. Tchaikovsky knew he was composing a masterpiece, and he was extremely proud of it. In fact, the composition of the symphony seemed to place him in unusually high spirits and confidence. He also knew that ending a symphony with a “long, drawn-out adagio” was a major innovation. And he certainly had some sort of program in mind (as he did with the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies) but expressed that this program would “remain an enigma to everyone.”

Tchaikovsky began composing the symphony in February 1893. The first movement was completed first, then the third movement march, followed by the slow finale and finally the 5/4 waltz of the second movement. The orchestration was finished in August. He conducted the St. Petersburg premiere on October 28 (October 16 in the Julian calendar still being used in tsarist Russia). He was satisfied and pleased after the premiere. And he was dead on November 6.

Tchaikovsky’s death is shrouded in mystery and conjecture.

The official explanation has always been that he contracted cholera after drinking water that had not been boiled. But there have always been several problems and unanswered questions about what really happened. Various theories emerged about a “court of honor” after his homosexuality had been discovered by his peers or even by the tsar himself, and that he had committed suicide on official orders, lest it be exposed to the public at large. Ultimately, there is not enough evidence to establish anything definitively. The same is true about any possible connections between the symphony and Tchaikovsky’s death. I believe the evidence speaks strongly against any such connection, and that the symphony’s character and the timing of its premiere are nothing but coincidence. The second performance on November 18 was a memorial concert for the composer, which added to the mystique, but he cannot have composed the symphony with such a memorial in mind.

Far more interesting than any of this is the music itself. Even without any mythology attached to it, the so-called “Pathétique” Symphony is a landmark in the history of the symphonic form. The idea of closing with a slow movement was bold enough and unprecedented of itself. Tchaikovsky could have ended his slow finale with joyous fulfillment or with resigned transfiguration, as Gustav Mahler would later do in his Third and Ninth Symphonies, respectively. But the finale of the “Pathétique,” despite some moments of hopefulness, ends in desolate minor-key tragedy, with one of the most famous examples of a “fade-out” in classical music. But even more striking is that this finale follows a movement that can only be described as triumphant and thrilling. The juxtaposition is amazing even today.

Other elements are remarkable as well. The first movement is drawn out over 20 minutes without an exposition repeat, but the material is so excellent and so skillfully deployed that it seems far shorter in the actual experience. And with due respect to “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, the second movement is, in my opinion, the most successful use of the unusual 5/4 meter in all the standard classical repertoire. Is it a “tragic” work? Certainly, but it is not as utterly hopeless as, say Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The effects of the triumphant third movement linger after the finale has concluded.

When the Colorado Music Festival orchestra performs the symphony at Chautauqua Auditorium July 1819 under returning guest conductor David Danzmayr, it will be interesting to observe the reaction of the audience. The third movement ends in such a manner that it is nearly impossible to resist breaking into applause, even though the listeners must be aware that there is another movement to come. Following the fade-out of the finale, applause is necessarily a bit delayed, as the conductor will take some time to lower the baton, allowing the fade to have its full effect. When the clapping starts, it is likely to be a slow burn, gradually building, rather than a sudden eruption. I hope that the audience resists the urge to “erupt” after the third movement, but I will certainly forgive them if they can’t.

“I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical offspring”

Tchaikovsky’s letters during the composition of the symphony are copious. They were directed to his brothers Modest and Anatoly, to his nephew Vladimir Davidov, to his colleague and former student Sergey Taneyev, and several others. In these documents, the composer consistently and effusively speaks of how proud he is of the piece. “It seems to me that this is the best work I have ever produced,” he told Anatoly. To Davydov, he said that he loved it more than any of his other “musical offspring.”  To the publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, he said “I can honestly say that never in my life have I been so pleased with myself, so proud, or felt so fortunate to have created something as good as this.”

Are these the expressions of somebody who is composing his musical suicide note? Even after the premiere, where he acknowledged that the symphony’s new and innovative aspects had “caused some bewilderment,” he said that “so far as myself am concerned, I’m prouder of it than any of my other works.” It is a specific quote in a letter to Davydov, however that gives the lie to any “premonition of death” the composer might have felt: “You can’t imagine how blissful I feel in the conviction that my time is not yet passed, and to work is still possible. Of course, I might be mistaken, but I don’t think so.”

The symphony was dedicated to Davydov, who was affectionately known as “Bob.”  Tchaikovsky was close with and had great admiration for his nephew. That admiration was certainly not platonic, and it reached the level of an ardent love. The dedication has been cited as evidence for the “homosexual tragedy” narrative, but it could simply mean that he wanted to dedicate the work he loved most to a person especially dear to him.

Tchaikovsky’s confidence and conviction of the symphony’s quality are notable in a composer who was often highly self-critical. Before composing it, he had abandoned another symphony, whose material went into the one-movement Third Piano Concerto (the only work to be completed after the symphony). The major work that preceded it was the Nutcracker ballet and the suite extracted from it. Despite its excellence, the ballet’s production brought Tchaikovsky little joy, and it was not one of his favorite compositions (he considered it inferior to his earlier ballet Sleeping Beauty). Its first performance was not a success, and its massive popularity was a later development.  In comments about the work on the symphony, it seems that he was relieved to be composing with the freedom that the ballet could not afford him.

The Nature of the Nickname

The symphony is universally known as the “Pathétique,” a mistranslation into French of a Russian word supposedly approved by Tchaikovsky. Brother Modest claimed to have suggested the title “Патетическая” (“Pateticheskaya”), whose closest translation would be “passionate.”  The French “Pathétique” means “solemn” or “emotive,” which is not the same. That mistranslation then led to it being called the “Pathetic” Symphony in English-speaking countries before that word obtained its strongly negative connotations. Fortunately, that moniker is generally avoided today. The publisher chose to keep the title and used the French word, likely referring to Beethoven’s piano sonata of the same name.

Accurate or not, the nickname has certainly contributed to the work’s popularity and acclaim, which is a good thing. And we can be thankful that Tchaikovsky abandoned the idea of calling it the “Program Symphony” without telling us the program. But it is worthwhile to know what the original meaning was intended to be. “Passionate” does not necessarily imply tragedy, while the French “Pathétique” certainly does. When listening to the symphony, its “tragic” elements are unavoidable, but not necessarily paramount. The “passion,” however, whether tragic, triumphant, or simply emotional, is always at the forefront.

Music Director Peter Oundjian discusses the July 18 and 19 programming.

First Movement: Twenty Minutes of Pure Passion

The duration of the first movement is not particularly noteworthy on its own. That of Tchaikovsky’s own Fourth Symphony is typically around 18 minutes. The first movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony takes about 20-21 minutes, but only if its exposition repeat is taken. Of course, Mahler, Shostakovich and others to come would make a 20-minute symphonic movement basically the average.

The wonder of the Pathétique’s first movement and its length has more to do with the proportion, with the way its materials are arranged. Tchaikovsky does essentially stick to the established “sonata-allegro” form for a first movement, adding a slow introduction, which was also common enough. In a typical sonata-allegro, the divisions are exposition, development, and recapitulation. The exposition presents the themes, of which there are usually two primary ones that somewhat oppose each other in character and key. It ends in a different key from the beginning and is commonly repeated in full. The development manipulates the themes and moves them through frequent changes of key and character. The recapitulation, usually approached dramatically, reprises the themes, now ending in the same key. A closing “coda,” shorter than the three main sections, is usually added. Generally, if the exposition repeat is taken, the second statement will end at around the temporal midpoint of the whole movement. If there is no repeat, the three sections will usually divide the movement roughly into thirds.

In the “Pathétique” there is no exposition repeat, but the end of the exposition, which is clearly identifiable, comes more than halfway through the movement. The introduction is quite brief, so that cannot account for this anomaly. Tchaikovsky has successfully used his exposition to present his themes in a luxurious and spacious way. The development is intense, but not particularly long, and the recapitulation, while abbreviated, is unusually climactic. The coda also has an atypical brevity. The proportions are unusual, but extremely effective.

The structure also lends itself to something less concrete—the feeling that the movement’s length is much shorter than it is. Tchaikovsky never allows interest to flag. And that has to do with the superb quality—and the passion—of the melodies themselves, not to mention the way they are treated.

Like the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Sixth begins with a slow introduction, but it is much smaller. It serves to introduce the first principal theme—and it begins in the “wrong key.” The symphony is in B minor, but the bassoon’s very low and ominous presentation of the slow rising and falling figure is in the related E minor. Tchaikovsky’s use of the lower strings, including divided violas, is notable here. The violins do not enter in the whole introduction.

Before the introduction concludes, the home key is reached, and in the faster “Allegro non troppo” tempo, the principal theme is given its full statement. In addition to the opening gesture, it contains other elements, most notably a passage of skittish running and skipping notes. The divided violas and cellos retain the first presentation. Woodwinds join, and finally the violins. The elements of the theme are easily combined and placed against each other, and Tchaikovsky does that at length. Fanfare figures are introduced. After the extensive exposition of this principal theme and an accompanying buildup, things settle down to a full stop.

There is no separate “transitional theme.”  Tchaikovsky simply uses the pause to dramatically introduce his second theme. It is second, but not “secondary,” as the new theme is easily the most recognizable tune in the movement and the entire symphony, used in countless examples of media and entertainment. It is exceedingly romantic in every way. After the excitement of the first theme, this one demands a slower “Andante” tempo. It is in D major, the “relative” major key to B minor.

The scoring is rich and full, with the horns making a memorable contribution. After the first statement of this immortal melody, Tchaikovsky introduces its second part in a slightly faster “Moderato” tempo. It consists of upward rising scales in the woodwinds using “triplet” rhythm, with notes in groups of three, followed by a rapid fall. Against this, the strings have a bouncing accompaniment. After this element also builds to a climax, Tchaikovsky takes the opportunity to give an even more effusive second statement of the big tune, which builds to a full-hearted climax before gradually dying down.

This passage, the receding close of the exposition, is notable for how quiet Tchaikovsky asks his instruments to get. He uses not only the superlative ppp but extends it to four and five p’s. Finally, he asks the bassoon for an unprecedented and practically impossible pppppp. Many performances use a bass clarinet (otherwise not called for in the score) to play these four descending notes since they are so difficult to play so quietly on the bassoon.

At this point, as stated, we are already halfway through the movement. The extensive statements of both themes, and the contrasting element of the second theme, have made this exposition unusually large. But the development section is terse and violent. After taking things down to nothing, the orchestra bursts out in C minor, “Allegro vivo.” Moving up through D minor, the first theme is heard in its original key from the introduction, E minor. Things become even more agitated before the trumpets wail out a descending line from the second theme. Not long after this, things recede, and Tchaikovsky introduces an entirely new element: a solemn brass chorale.

It turns out that this chorale is a direct quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem Mass. The quotation is doubtless a part of the program Tchaikovsky did not want to reveal, but of course its presence adds to the rampant speculation. The program may be about death, but this is no evidence that it has anything to do with the composer’s death. Out of the chorale, there is another buildup, with surging syncopated strings playing against the brass. This fades before the first theme is again introduced as a re-transition out of the development section. Moving through keys and building in intensity, the music reaches a triple forte climax at the same time the home key of B minor arrives. Without warning, the recapitulation has arrived.

The statement of the first theme is greatly varied and consists largely of antiphonal calls and responses of its elements between the brass, woodwinds, and strings. It is extremely intense, and before long the brass instruments are again blasting in triple forte against a thundering timpani roll, reinforced by the low strings. The entire passage, with agonizing cries from the low brass, is like an outburst of despair. But after reaching quadruple forte it rapidly collapses.

This sets the stage for the healing appearance of the second theme, now in the “home” major key, B major. Approached by rumbling low strings, the theme is only given one emotional statement. The second part, with the triplet scales, is omitted, greatly reducing the recapitulation’s length. After the final statement of the second theme once again fades away, the very short coda begins. The descending line from the second theme is heard in plucked strings against another solemn brass chorale, and this remarkable movement dies away.

Second Movement: Waltz in Five

The use of 5/4 meter inevitably creates a sense of imbalance. It is practically impossible not to hear it as 3+2 or 2+3. Holst’s “Mars” and “Neptune” movements are 3+2. And nominally, at least according to the groupings in the score, Tchaikovsky is asking for 2+3. But when he presents his waltz theme (for it is a waltz), it is possible to hear it in undivided units of 5, the closest any composer ever came to a real 5/4 “swing.”

This is because the theme, initially presented by the cellos, places a prominent triplet—a group of three—on the third beat, the exact midpoint of the measure. We hear two beats before it and two beats after. A sighing woodwind response on the fourth and fifth beats also undermines the 2+3 subdivision.

The movement is in D major, the key where the first movement’s big tune was first heard. The melody is presented at length, with a counter-statement reversing its direction. A waltz in five should be impossible, but the character is the same as the Nutcracker’s “Waltz of the Flowers” or the Fifth Symphony’s explicitly labeled waltz.

The middle section is in the symphony’s home key of B minor and is extremely repetitive, giving more emphasis to the 2+3 subdivision. It basically consists of a series of descending lines. But a persistent bass “pedal point” on the note D is highly unsettling and counteracts the hypnotic effect of an otherwise static passage of music. The “pedal point” also helps ease into the transition back to the main waltz material in D. This reprise reaches a climax, and then, as a coda, the repetitive descents from the middle section are transformed into bell-like chords. These are combined with fragments of the waltz theme to bring the movement to a gentle conclusion.

Third Movement: The Triumph Before the Fall

The third movement is an extended fast march, almost militaristic in character. And while there are struggles—a major-key march must overcome its minor-key counterpart—it is impossible to describe the movement as anything but triumphant and victorious. Some may feel that because the triumph is not the end, it is “hollow,” “premature,” “empty,” or even “false.” But these adjectives simply do not square with what we hear. The triumph is real, the victory is real. It is simply not final, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, in the end, death will claim us all, no matter how many victories we have achieved. That does not mean that those victories were false.

The movement is set in the new key of G major and a standard march rhythm is constantly juxtaposed against a background of triplets—divisions of the beat into three. There are four main elements: First, the “introductory” material, a rush of triplets passed almost playfully between strings and winds. This material is always in G major and serves as the connecting thread. In its initial presentation, fragments of the upcoming major-key march are heard. Second, the “minor-key” march, or March 1. This is always heard in the symphony’s main key of B minor. It is serious, but light and vigorous, and certainly not tragic. Its first appearance is cut off by the re-emergence of the “introductory” G-major music. Third, the “major-key” march, or March 2. This is really the main theme of the movement. Its full statement is very carefully and extensively prepared. It is given in the new, unexpected, and extremely bright key of E major, and initially presented by a solo clarinet. It begins quietly, but it has extraordinary potential, which Tchaikovsky exploits to the fullest. Fourth and finally, a rising chordal gesture that temporarily arrests the motion and appears as a sort of “sequel” to the major-key march. The E-major march is breathlessly, joyously extended.

There is no “middle section.” Tchaikovsky simply restates all the elements, with the important distinction that the major-key march is now in the movement’s home key of G. It also follows an unusually long preparatory passage that ratchets up the jubilation. When the march finally arrives in full for the second time, it is blasted out by the full orchestra. Tchaikovsky has reserved his auxiliary percussion, bass drum and cymbals, for this statement.

Incredibly, the exultation builds even further, and in the coda, the composer brings things “up to eleven,” as it were. Here, a descending line is heard that is distinctly reminiscent of a passage from the most iconic music of triumph ever composed: the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This may or may not have been intentional, but as Tchaikovsky arrives at his thrilling conclusion, it is punctuated by the very same da-da-da-DAH rhythm that begins that symphony. “False” triumph?  “Premature” jubilation? Most decidedly not.

Finale: Tragedy Prevails

Of course, a decisive victory does not rule out a later defeat. And perhaps that is Tchaikovsky’s message and his program. That is why mythology concerning his death so soon after the premiere is so hard to resist. The third movement could not be the conclusion. The symphony has had no real slow movement yet, after all, and G major is the wrong key in which to conclude a B-minor symphony.

Thus, Tchaikovsky invites his audience to trust him and follows the triumph with the tragedy. Despite Tchaikovsky’s statements, the movement is not long in terms of material, and not all of it is slow. It is in a simple three-part form. The broad, lamenting main theme represents another major innovation in Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. It is presented in full harmony by the string section, but the actual musical lines are split between the groups. One must look at the score to fully appreciate what he does. The first violins play one note of the melody, then pass it to the second violins while taking harmony on the next note. The lines in the violas and cellos are similarly split. Hearing the first violins in isolation would only result in hearing every other note of the melody, alternating with disjunct leaps. But when everyone plays together, we hear the melody.

After the initial statement of the lamenting theme, the contrasting “Andante” melody appears in D major, which was also the contrasting key of the first movement and the main key of the second. It is a simple descending line, but it is incredibly hopeful, creating the illusion that the tragedy might be overcome. It builds to yet another passionate climax, increasing greatly in speed, but then it rapidly collapses in an almost terrifying plunge. After a frightful pause, the hopeful melody attempts to assert itself, but it is sternly cut off by the return of the lamenting main theme.

This is now played in direct lines, without the instrumental cross-weaving of the opening. This statement also builds greatly in both speed and volume, reaching the symphony’s shattering final climax. From there, all hope is lost. Tchaikovsky backs away from the final climax, making sure that it completely dissipates, asking the trombones to play ppppp and deploying for the only time that musical symbol of fate, the tam-tam gong.

The coda is truly desolate. The string basses establish a pulsing rhythm, and the formerly hopeful secondary theme is transformed into a B-minor dirge. The pulsating basses continue to the end as Tchaikovsky skillfully composes his fade-out. It is not the first symphonic dissipation. After all, Haydn had asked his instruments to gradually leave the stage at the end of his “Farewell” Symphony. And it is not the last. Mahler would outdo Tchaikovsky in the art of the fade-out at the end of his Ninth, and he would outdo him in terms of pure devastation at the end of his own Sixth. But it is arguably the first great symphonic tragedy, a tragedy achieved through an excess of emotion—of passion. At the same time, it is a compositional triumph, and Tchaikovsky knew it. What it is certainly not is “pathetic.”

Plan Your Festival Visit


Visiting Boulder

The Festival performs in beautiful Boulder, Colorado — a breathtaking location full of nature, culture, cuisine, art, and more.

Learn About Our Educational Programs


Festival Fellows

Meet the Festival Fellows: eight aspiring professional musicians who receive coaching and performance opportunities through the Festival and its guest artists.

Center for Musical Arts

This excellent community music school is also the educational arm of our organization.