1893: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor “Pathétique”, age 53

Mr. Peabody Says:

The most tragic symphony ever written: Tchaikovsky led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 28 October 1893, nine days before his death. The name we know today, “Pathétique”, does not mean “pathetic”. It means “passionate”. It was the last of Tchaikovsky’s compositions premiered in his lifetime.

Who to listen to?

It’s a real problem for this symphony, because there are so many amazing recordings. I have different favorites on different days, some conductors seem to excel in different movements. I can only say that if you like this, listen to many performances. There are so many great ones to pick from one.

Maybe start here:

  1. Allegro molto vivace (G major – E major – G major – D major – G major) – 48:23

In spite of the terribly heavy, heartbreaking nature of the 1st and 4th movements, this 3rd movement is one of the most “up” things ever written. It has the wonderful woodwinds that are trademarks of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. It’s light and playful, very fast, and it has the feel of a scherzo, but in either 2/4 or 4/4, then at the end it heats up with the big guns: the brass. This one movement never stops me from feeling excited, joyful and totally energized as the scherzo feeling turns into a very fast march. By the way, Tchaikovsky wrote two trumpet parts, but that does NOT mean only two players.

Notice, by the way, that end of this movement Gergiev is forced to stop. He wants to go right into the last movement, but he can’t because the audience is so excited.

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo (E minor – B minor – D major – D minor – C-sharp major – B minor – B major)
  2. Allegro con grazia (D major – B minor – D major)
  3. Allegro molto vivace (G major – E major – G major – D major – G major)
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso (B minor – D major – C major – B minor)

Valery Gergiev

He is one of the most dynamic conductors today, and he’s fun to watch. People joke that he conducts with a tooth pick. This has nothing to do with his results, so it must be some kind of strange psychological thing.

Verbier Festival Orchestra

These amazing young musicians are no older than 28 and as young as 18. How they respond to the conductor is amazing.


  • 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam (ad libitum)
  • Strings

His death:

The cause has been debated for more than a century. Some say it was cholera, which he got from drinking unboiled water. But others suggest that he drank that water on purpose, to end his life. I don’t know the answer anymore than anyone else, but I do know that he was tortured by depression most of his life, and given the way his last symphony ends, it’s easy to believe that he had given up.

My personal connection to this symphony:

I have avoided writing about this symphony because it is such a personal matter. When I was in my early teens I started ordering records, and I remember when this came in the mail. I remember the album cover, which is impossible to find. I closed my eyes, and I was ripped to shreds. The onslaught of emotions was like nothing I’d ever seen. I instantly fell in love with the music.

To this very moment I can’t listen to this music with the same feelings. I am absolutely hard-wired into the musical soul of this man, and I suppose for this reason I have an absolute spiritual link to Russian music. There is no music from any country in the world that hits me this way. It is so personal, so visceral, so absolutely over the top that it takes over my body and mind. There is nothing intellectual, careful, safe. This is true of so many of the Russians, including music by “The Five”, Rachmaninov and others.

Once in college while talking about how much I loved this music, some incredibly condescending idiot about the age of 25 said to me: “It’s typical of young people. You’ll grow out of it.”

I was 19. More than 50 years later I feel the same way.

There is now so much more music I love, with so many styles and ideas and moods, but Tchaikovsky still rocks me in a way no other composer ever has. And if you read about what other Russians feel about him, you’ll find that I’m not alone.


3 thoughts on “1893: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor “Pathétique”, age 53

  1. The first movement caught me off guard because it almost felt like different pieces or different movements. Had I not known where mov’t 2 starts, maybe I would have made a mistake. I liked it immensely, esp. the first, and also the jaunty 3rd.

    Is there a reason why the 4th sounds so familiar? Like, has it been borrowed in movies, or such?

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