MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2024
60,000 reviews
... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6

“A week after the première of his Sixth Symphony (1893), in a fit of depression Tchaikovsky drank unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, contracted the disease and died.” Accepted for nearly 100 years, that common explanation of his death was has since become a subject of controversy: was it accident or recklessness - or was it suicide, by order of a court of honour, to avoid a homosexual scandal? Such discussions somehow seem to be compulsory when talking about the Sixth, but really they appear to be of no particular relevance to the music, the writing of which (we’re compelled to conclude) predated the first performance . . . 

True, he was neurotic, fatalistic, reserved - which might explain why in 1877, apparently succumbing to moral blackmail, he married an admirer who was also (again apparently) a deranged nymphomaniac - for a latent homosexual a recipe for disaster (I do wonder what might his music have been like had he lived in today's moral climate?). This “union” lasted nine weeks, leaving Tchaikovsky a nervous wreck. He was revived by the generosity of the mysterious, wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose patronage over the next three years enabled him to devote himself entirely to his art. 

In 1892, a comfortably well-off Tchaikovsky completed The Nutcracker, arguably his happiest score. About then, in the idyllic surroundings of his country house near Klin, he started his Sixth Symphony. It's therefore more than likely that in the music he was merely recalling, from the haven of a tranquil present, the memories of anguish past. Had he felt anything like it sounds, would he have been in a fit state to write at all, never mind so brilliantly? 

We are told that the Ballet influenced his symphonies. However, this balletic influence holds for so much of his output that I wonder: is it simply that his intrinsic style happened to suit ballet? However, Tchaikovsky's symphonies are important really because in them he managed to aggravate two opposing factions at one and the same time. The Russian Nationalists disliked his cow-towing to western models, while many Western Europeans objected to his Russian “primitivism”: Tchaikovsky dragged Russian music kicking and screaming into the mainstream of musical culture, while stunning that mainstream with some really wild sounds. 

Like Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky speaks directly and emotively to the uninitiated. The Sixth outshines even the Fourth in combining a supreme command of symphonic structure with belting good tunes, toe-tapping rhythms, vivid, poster-paint orchestration (characteristically differentiating strings, woodwinds, and brass), and overwhelming dramatic flair. Not for nothing was this symphony dubbed Pathetic, a term whose true meaning is entirely lost to modern “yoof culture”! 

The First Movement (adagio - allegro non troppo) is long, but with a structural lucidity owing much to its being built of big, bold “duplo” bricks. It emerges from subterranean depths, brooding gloomily on a fragment of the first subject, seemingly unsure whether it's worth bothering with. But, let loose, it blossoms invigoratingly, spawning a motif presaging the second subject, that object lesson in what can be got from a simple scale (as I first heard this, my Mum sang along with it - now I can't exorcise those damnable soppy words!). 

The development shatters a stillness somewhat optimistically marked pppppp, a shock usually diluted in live concerts by a huge conductorial gesture (although, considering the palpitations it can cause when heard on CD, perhaps we should be thankful that conductors don’t cue it with a merest tweak of the stick?). After much frenetic activity, the music descends balefully from an extremely loud climax. A drastically abbreviated recapitulation relegates the first subject to a vague echo in the religioso coda. 

The Second Movement (allegro con grazia) seems to be a moment of relaxation, waltz-like and lilting. However, it is cast in a teasing 5/4. The constant 3 + 2 alternation lends the music a vague uneasiness, crystallised in the doleful sighing of the central episode whose resonance casts a long shadow over the remainder of the movement. 

Third Movement (allegro molto vivace). Is this a march of “triumph”, as commonly assumed, or of “hysterical desperation”? Tchaikovsky whips up such a frenzy that I incline to the latter! But, like Beethoven in the finale of his Seventh, Tchaikovsky unleashes wild passions whilst keeping a tight rein on the structure. Tension is thrust to considerable heights with masterly guile. The first, tremendous crescendo unleashes the first full statement of the main theme, but not in a mighty climax: it just tootles gently on a solo clarinet. From here, he can crank the tension even higher, using a technique not unlike whipping a turbocharged GTI up through the gears. 

Curiously, when the Big Climax comes, it is prefaced by a series of tension-dissolving scale runs, and the tumult is led not by braying brass but by struggling strings. If this is deliberate, and I don’t for a moment think a composer of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic flair would have screwed up such a key moment, then we are indeed faced with “hysterical desperation”. Hence, I guess, the feeling that the repeat of this straining climax feels like it wants to shout LOUDER! - but just can't find the breath. 

Placing the Slow Movement (adagio lamentoso) last was revolutionary, but entirely logical if you're after a really depressing ending. From the flaming heights of triumph or (more logically) hysteria, it is a long, long drop to the depths of despondency. The stifling descent of strings is a dramatic masterstroke. Yet, alarmingly, this famous theme is only a figment of the modern practice of placing first and second violins together. In Tchaikovsky's day, the left/right opposition of first and second violins would have revealed, antiphonally, the intended intertwining of two different strands. The yearning second subject offers no consolation whatsoever. Passions do rise, but the movement as a whole passes inexorably from deep despair to the rock bottom of the pit of utter oblivion. 

It's fascinating to speculate: could Tchaikovsky have originally planned a happy ending, putting the March last? He seemed contented enough at the time of writing, the tonal structure does not preclude it, and dramatically it would make a lot of sense: the second movement's unease would lead quite naturally, through the dark adagio, into an emotional abyss, from which the only way out is up - exactly the right place to start the March's ascent. We may never know how or why it turned out as it did. Triumphant endings are more sheer fun, I suppose, but the plain, indisputable fact is that we're all suckers for a “two-Kleenex” ending. That said, who else but Tchaikovsky should have been the first to put one in a symphony?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


Conditions for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.

Return to: Music on the Web