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Composed: 1893
Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, and tam-tam), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 19, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

The emotional turbulence of Tchaikovsky’s mature masterpieces often suggests a confessional quality around which it’s tempting to construct a narrative. Compounding this tendency is the simple fact that Tchaikovsky was a particular favorite in the early days of radio and the recording industry. This is when classical music was first becoming available to a mass audience, and such narratives abounded as a strategy for making sure the music didn’t seem forbidding. Nowadays it’s with bemused detachment that we come across the impossibly flowery commentaries (quite apart from Tchaikovsky’s own descriptions) to which the composer was subjected. They’re of the stereotypical “fickle finger of fate” variety, where melodies chastely pick themselves up despite bruised wings to soar aloft, newly armed for spiritual victory. Tchaikovsky’s popularity as a source for Hollywood scores and Tin Pan Alley tunes of that period is hardly coincidental.

All of this eventually led to an unfortunate critical backlash. Tchaikovsky became a whipping boy for the worst excesses of Romanticism: sentimental self-indulgence, emotional exposure, even an out-of-control “hysteria” – “too much information” was the uncomfortable response from the guardians of taste. But the court of popular opinion has proved more far-sighted than that of the critics. Tchaikovsky’s best music has remained firmly entrenched in the repertoire because it “says” something far richer, more passionate, and more profoundly moving than any dated characterization could convey.

Tchaikovsky himself showed ambivalence about the issue of program music. For his Fourth Symphony he supplied an elaborate program detailing the content of each movement, centered around the idea of Fate. The most programmatic of all his symphonies, the unnumbered Manfred Symphony of 1885, is based on Lord Byron’s poetic drama and its Faustian hero. The Fifth Symphony seems to occupy a middle ground. The composer supplied a bare minimal description in his working notebook.

By the time of his final Symphony No. 6, Tchaikovsky developed an esoteric, “private,” and unpublished program. Nevertheless, he drew attention to it by the somewhat provocative working subtitle, “Program Symphony,” and by the dedication to “Bob” Davidov, the nephew with whom he was in love in his final decade. According to one of the many legends that surround the work, Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest (as he later claimed) came up with the name “Pathétique” – which suggests “impassioned suffering” in its Russian context. Whether or not the composer acquiesced to this christening before his sudden death just a little over a week after the world premiere (Oct. 28, 1893 in St. Petersburg) it has come to seem uncannily suitable for the devastating psychological drama the Symphony lays bare.

The circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death have further enshrouded the Pathétique in mystery: was an accidental drink of cholera-contaminated water what killed him, or did the “scandal” of his gay affairs result in Tchaikovsky submitting to a kind of Socratic suicide? The debate – much like the one surrounding Shostakovich – rages on unresolved. Meanwhile, a long series of commentators claiming to decipher the Symphony’s internal musical codes have contributed to its aura of intrigue, thereby ensuring that this remains the most controversial of all his works (and indeed of the symphonic repertoire).

The first movement – around twice the length of each of the other three – immediately ushers us into a world of bleak despair that attains a crushing intensity. Tchaikovsky employs the mastery of his technical skill to give his emotional power resilient shape. He manages his traditional orchestral forces in unexpected ways, with brass chorales as rousing as Judgment Day and delicately sprung wind solos. Even the composer’s trademark roulades possess a shattering, nervous energy that seems unique here.

In the middle of the movement, the explosive rupturing of the pppppp called for in the score must come as a shock, not a hammy and bathetic gesture. This is just one of the formidable challenges interpreters of the Pathétique face, along with establishing a coherence behind what seem on the surface such sharply marked-off, disparate sections (for example, the pause and tempo change before the indelibly lyrical second theme, inspired by Don José’s “Flower Song” in Carmen, a favorite opera of the fate-obsessed Tchaikovsky).

Two inner movements of entirely different character turn out to be interludes rather than actual shifts of direction. The second movement’s flowing, dance-like charm is given a subtle displacement through the use of 5/4 meter (two beats followed by the triple pattern of the waltz). In the third movement, Tchaikovsky presents a blazing but hollowly triumphant, brass-reinforced march that revels in aggressive, swaggering rhythms.

It’s often been pointed out that had Tchaikovsky simply switched the order of the final two movements, he would have preserved the optimistic, Beethovenian model of light over darkness. Yet by reversing that model and ending with the nihilistic, dying fall of the Adagio (the same tempo with which the Symphony began), he introduces a radically new concept of the symphonic journey (Mahler’s Ninth would follow a similar pattern). Indeed, Tchaikovsky writes about his novel approach to form here as an aspect that excited his creative fancy. The valedictory plunge into silence from a sustained B-minor chord deep in the strings sets the stage for a new century of bleak requiems. Tchaikovsky declared that he had put his “whole soul into this work.” And there it remains – beyond all attempts at reductive explanations – for us to encounter anew.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and contributes to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.