Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 In B Minor 'Pathetique'

Pyotr Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his final symphony on October 28, 1893 in St. Petersburg. Nine days later he died, and the rumors still persist concerning what were the causes of his death. The rumors were fanned by the Sixth Symphony itself, titled Pathetique (in this particular sense meaning emotional and suffering) especially in the mournful, dying music of the last movement.

At first his death was attributed to the cholera epidemic of the time and from the beginning the idea of suicide made the rounds, while modern scholarship retains the theory of suicide with an added explanation; Tchaikovsky was called to a court of honor over his homosexual affairs especially with a Russian noble, and offered the options of taking his own life or having the affairs made public.  The jury is still out on all of that. Tchaikovsky himself said there was a program behind the symphony, but he never divulged what it was. It all remains a great perhaps, but while the meaning behind the symphony will never be known for certain, Tchaikovsky left behind one of the masterworks of the symphonic literature.

Symphony No. 6 In B Minor is in 4 movements:

I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo - The symphony begins in the black tones of a solo bassoon accompanied by the strings. This continues with changes of instrumentation for 18 measures before the first theme is heard in the strings and then the winds. There is an extended working out of secondary material as the music steadily builds in tension and movement. The music begins to fade as transitional material leads to the actual second theme which is heard in muted violins in the key of D major. This theme also goes through an extended working out of minor material. The second theme reappears in a more passionate version, after which the music gradually gets softer and a clarinet takes up the beginning of the second theme and repeats it ever softer until it hands the last half measure to the solo bassoon, which Tchaikovsky directs to play in what must be one of the most radical dynamic markings in all of classical music:
After a very short fermata on the last almost imperceptible D of the bassoon, the orchestra shouts out in double forte short transitional material that announces the development section where a fragment of the first theme is given a fugal treatment. A brief new theme acts as a bridge back to fragments of the first theme that build to a tremendous clamor. In a descent that is almost painful the music gradually works down to the depths of despair in the low brass.  With the first theme getting most of the attention in  the development, Tchaikovsky doesn't repeat it in the recapitulation but goes directly to the second theme, which appears with an agitated accompaniment in the low strings. The theme builds in passion and slowly fades in volume. A solo clarinet takes up the theme once again, and leads to the coda which takes on the characteristics of a march as the music gently dissolves.

II. Allegro con grazia -  The second movement is in contrast to the preceding movement.  Tchaikovsky writes the entire movement is 5/4 time, 2 beats alternating with 3 beats, but the music flows smoothly despite the irregular meter.  A middle section in B minor breaks the lyricism of the theme as the timpani beats out a steady rhythm under the throbbing strings. After this interlude, the dancing theme skips its way to a coda that refers to the middle section before it gently ends.

III. Allegro molto vivace -  The third movement is in even more contrast to what has gone before and what is to come. It is a march/scherzo that begins softly and builds throughout the movement until the march theme is played in full volume along with cymbal crashes and grand thumps from the bass drum and timpani until it ends with a roar. Contrary to concert tradition and etiquette, in live performances this movement many times causes the audience to erupt in applause that is almost a release of tension this music can create.

IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso – Andante - The strings begin this movement as Tchaikovsky creates a feeling of despair as the strings play the theme and accompaniment in contrary motion. The bassoons enter and drop the despair to the depths. Another theme appears in the strings in D major, but despite the major tonality the theme has its own brand of sadness. This theme builds to a climax and the bottom falls out as the strings descend to silence. The opening sighs are heard again in fragments until the string play an ascending chromatic run that returns the entire first theme. This theme continues until it turns sinister as it is accompanied by stopped horns. The brass play a short chorale and the music sinks back into the despair with which it began. A fragment of the theme is heard over and over in dynamics that sink to the very bottom of human hearing. The faint beating of a dying heart is heard in the low strings until it expires in a whisper.

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