Work of the week – Tchaikovsky's “Pathétique”

By Konzerthaus Berlin Sept. 19, 2023


© Marco Borggreve

A composer's very own requiem?

Mozart's last, unfinished work is in fact a Requiem - for contemporaries and posterity a great opportunity to speculate at length about the premonitions and circumstances of his death! Tchaikovsky's last (and completed) work is his 6th Symphony - he died 9 days after the premiere, which he conducted at St Petersburg. Why and by what means was and is also the subject of much speculation: Did he accidentally drink water contaminated with cholera bacteria? On purpose? Or was he ordered by an ominous feme court of his former law school to kill himself because of his homosexuality?

From letters and records, we know that the composer took life hard, repeatedly struggled with depression, felt lonely. He also wrote that his 6th Symphony had an (extra-musical) programme that was to "remain a mystery to everyone" and was "full of subjective emotions". But whether the piece can therefore be read as a life balance or even a kind of requiem? That, too, remains a mystery.

Body and soul as music

According to Tchaikovsky's biographer Nina Berberova, "... he knew that this symphony was the best thing he had ever written. Not because it was his most recent work, not because he had wanted to give himself an answer to probing questions for long years and had finally done so, not because this symphony contained all his pain, all his madness, and he was now as if hollowed out, as if his soul had been torn from his body, but because this music was himself more than ever before, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood."

Formulated somewhat less dramatically than in this biography of Tchaikovsky from 1936: the "Pathétique" has a strong autobiographical reference. Incidentally, it owes its name to Pyotr's brother Modest. The composer himself liked the title better than his own idea of a "programme symphony".

In the depths of the orchestra

From the "transcendend" key of B minor, which Bach chose for his famous mass and Schubert for the "Unfinished", to the sighing motif that begins in the bassoon and meanders through various instruments in the course of the symphony, to the poignant finale "Adagio lamentoso" - musically, the "Pathétique" speaks of transience.
"... beauty, it is in danger in this symphony, and ceaselessly so," writes our programme writer Jürgen Otten. Life, however, rebels: rapturously in the first, waltzing in 5/4 time in the second movement, flitting about in the third and even marching forward as bravely as mechanically. But in the end it dies out in the depths of the orchestra. What comes next? Tchaikovsky remained a seeker throughout his life, struggling to find his faith.

Photo: Marco Borggreve


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