Article provided by Joe Moreno - ©1998
Tchaikovsky¹s last symphony, and last major work, was written by a man half convinced that he was too old and tired to produce it. He always suffered from mood swings and depression, and after he turned 50, these were aggravated by fears that he was getting old and his inordinate gift for musical ideas was drying up. On tour in America in May 1891, he noted in his diary that Americans thought he looked older than his 51 years, writing "I feel that something within me has gone to pieces." Two months later, he wrote in a letter that "the old man is obviously in decline. Not only is his hair thinning and white as snow, his teeth falling out and declining to chew his food, his eyes weakening and tiring easily, his legs shuffling rather than walking, but even the only ability he has for any kind of occupation is failing and evaporating." In fall of 1892, he began a symphony in E-flat, then abandoned it as "an empty pattern of sounds without inspiration." In January 1893, on his way home from Paris, Tchaikovsky stopped for two weeks in Odessa, where the adulation with which he was received only underscored his fears. On February 9, he wrote to his nephew that "What I need is to believe in myself again ‹ for my faith has been greatly undermined; it seems to me my role is over."
And yet, two weeks later Tchaikovsky was home, exuberantly writing to the same nephew that a new symphony was already worked out:
"Just as I was starting on my journey the idea came to me for a new symphony, this time with a program, but a program which will remain an enigma to all ‹ let them guess it who can. It will be called "A Programmatic Symphony" (No. 6).Š During my trip, while composing in my mind, I frequently shed tears. When I got home I settled down to sketch it, and the work went so furiously that I had the first movement completely ready in less than four days and the remaining movements are already clearly outlined in my head. Half the third movement is already done. There will be much innovation of form in this symphony ‹ and incidentally, the finale will not be a noisy allegro but, on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can¹t imagine what bliss I feel, being convinced that my time is not yet passed and I can still work. Perhaps, of course, I¹m mistaken, but I don¹t think so."
Tchaikovsky normally sketched out major works in this way and then spent a far longer time in orchestrating and changing details. Having sketched the new symphony with a speed that amazed even himself, Tchaikovsky took another six months to create the finished product. During this time he wrote that he suffered "torments that cannot be put into words [though] there is one place in the Sixth Symphony where they seem to me to be adequately expressed." By August he was writing to his nephew that the Symphony was "the best, and certainly the most open-hearted, of all my works." Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg on October 28, and the next day, at the suggestion of his brother Modeste (the literary talent in the family), renamed it "Pathétique" before sending it to his publisher. Eight days later he was dead.
At the time, Modeste and Tchaikovsky¹s doctor put out suspiciously different stories about Tchaikovsky dying of cholera, stories which were in any event contradicted by other evidence, and seem like a coverup of something, presumably suicide. In 1966, another story surfaced, equally suspicious but difficult to dismiss out of hand, to the effect that Tchaikovsky was found out in a liaison with the son of a prominent nobleman, and was "sentenced" by an honor court of alumni from his old school to commit suicide to avoid dishonor and criminal prosecution for homosexuality. The fact is that Tchaikovsky did not need someone else to order him to commit suicide; he was perfectly capable of it and had made at least one attempt before.
It is only natural that Tchaikovsky¹s last symphony has become linked to the mystery of his death. Its first movement quotes from the Russian mass for the dead, and the Symphony ends in a mood of despair, leading some to conclude that Tchaikovsky¹s unexplained program was about death, suggested perhaps by thoughts of his own doom, or by the recent deaths of three close friends. We can¹t know for sure, but we can rest assured that if Tchaikovsky thought it was necessary to know the program to understand the symphony, he would have disclosed it.
Much of the formal innovation Tchaikovsky mentioned occurs in the first movement, in which the three thematic groups are in three different tempos, as if separate mini-movements in a suite. A descending scale figure in the woodwinds that answers the first theme is important for two reasons. One is that upward or downward scale figures come to dominate this Symphony, appearing in all sorts of forms, often bringing subtle, even subliminal, reminders of what has already happened. Each movement ends with passages built noticeably, even ostentatiously, on scales. (It has been suggested that the downward scale is a motto representing fate or death, which means that every movement ends with fate or death getting the last word; in fact, Tchaikovsky creates an astonishing variety of effects through this seemingly simple device.) The other reason is that the downward figure turns into the spacious second subject. As a total change in mood and a respite from the intense activity of the rest of the movement, it takes on some of the attributes of the traditional slow second movement. The tempo then speeds to moderato for a third theme group built out of an ascending scale in the woodwinds, before the andante section returns. The woodwinds die away to virtual silence ‹ Tchaikovsky, never one for understatement, writes pppppp, which is probably a few more p¹s than are needed to say "as soft as possible" ‹ and then the full orchestra explodes in a heart-stopping fortissimo that starts the development, a pitched battle that climaxes in a downward scale in the trumpets. At this point things quiet down and the trombones quote a line of chant from the Orthodox mass for the dead ("With your saints, O Christ, may the soul of the departed rest in peace"). What would normally be a recapitulation is more of a continuation of the battle in the development, until a final tragic eruption, over a long drone F-sharp, leads to one more statement, in B major, of the andante theme, this time against rising scales in the low strings and woodwinds. The final mood is one of resignation, as the winds intone a chorale over pizzicato descending B-major scales.
The second movement is a quasi-waltz in 5/4 time, with a graceful theme with the up-and-down contours of the moderato theme that appeared and then disappeared in the exposition of the first movement. Tchaikovsky dresses up this melody in all sorts of finery, including pizzicato descending scales that might hint at the end of the first movement. A movement with a basic beat in five was virtually unheard of in Western classical music in the 19th century (and is still rare in the standard repertory), but evidently well-received: it "brought the house down" in a London performance in 1894, according to George Bernard Shaw, who reviewed the concert.
The movement that brings down the house a century later is the third, and not simply because the uninitiated mistake it for a finale. It is in the tempo of a quickstep march, but at least in its early stages it has a mercurial lightness reminiscent of Mendelssohn, created by its unusual texture ‹ the string parts are subdivided, giving their sound a certain wispiness ‹ and by a compound meter that produces a constant play of three against two. Much of the thematic material is based on sequences of the interval of a fourth. Fourths, like fifths, sound assertive, since they bring fanfares to mind, but a sequence of more than two of them makes tonality vague, a bit like the sound of the string sections tuning. The result is an unsettling elusiveness, since we feel strongly that we are in some key, but can¹t figure out what it is.
Those shifting fourths eventually settle down into a real march, played first by the clarinets against scale figures in the strings. The theme and the scales become more prominent, culminating in a long crescendo based on the march theme, climaxing in swooping scales in the strings and woodwinds that are sheer exuberant sound effect, as if the march were momentarily halted for a short fireworks display. When it stops, the march returns triumphant against scales hammered out by the brass. The breathtaking coda ends in a rush of scales, both the rapid swoops of the violins and woodwinds and the heavier downward perorations of the brass.
Both themes of the finale are downward scales. The opening theme has a sobbing character, in no small part because nobody is actually playing it: rather, the first and second violins both play figures consisting of upward and downward leaps, and the theme emerges from whichever part has the highest note. In this way, Tchaikovsky not only ensures that the melody is not played too smoothly, but takes advantage of the natural tendency to subtly accent notes at the top of a leap. The second theme is in a consoling D major, but the movement ends with it in a desolate B minor, descending lower and lower until at last only the cellos and basses remain to finish.
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