I’ve been listening to a new recording of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the Sixth–named the Pathétique–paired with the romantic masterpiece Romeo & Juliet. It is a wonderful recording, with Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov leading the Czech Philharmonic on the Decca Classics label, which is famous for the quality of their recorded sound. This is the first volume of “The Tchaikovsky Project” recording cycle that will eventually cover all of the composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. Bychkov has expressed a special love for Tchaikovsky, saying, “I’ve loved Tchaikovsky’s music ever since I can remember. Like all first loves, this one never died.”
Tchaikovsky’s music is dramatic and his musical canvases large and emotional. The Sixth Symphony is particularly so. (The Sixth was actually called the “Passionate Symphony” in Russian, but that was mistranslated into the French “pathétique” meaning “evoking pity.”) Tchaikovsky wrote it at a time of emotional turmoil. Trapped in a miserable marriage, he was a closeted gay man living in Czarist Russia, under constant stress of being outed and rejected by St. Petersburg society. Tchaikovsky labored on the Sixth and finished it in August 1893. The debut performance took place in St. Petersburg on October 9, 1893. A month later the composer was dead, after willfully drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. Historians have viewed it a suicide, as Tchaikovsky was in good health at the time.
It is beyond sad that Tchaikovsky may have felt the need to take his life in the face of certain scorn and opprobrium due to his sexual orientation. It was, however, the tenor of the times. Just two years later, Oscar Wilde was locked up in Reading Gaol for being gay. His meditation, written from prison, De Profundis (“out of the depths”) could be viewed as a literary analog to Tchaikovsky’s final work. Wilde went from the heights of stardom and fame into the depths of rejection and despair; Tchaikovsky feared he would meet a similar fate.
It’s a powerful experience to listen to this symphony. From the dark opening phrases to the efforts at sounding joyful or light, a dark undercurrent runs throughout. The critic Robert Simpson described the work as an expression “of sorrow leavened with hope and happiness tinged with a foreboding of despair.” The ending sounds like a heartbeat that slows and finally stops in silent finality.
In program notes for an unfinished symphony that he tore up before composing the Sixth, Tchaikovsky wrote, “The ultimate essence…of the symphony is Life. First part–all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death– result of collapse). Second part love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away” (via Wikipedia). Tchaikovsky specialist and biographer David Brown has suggested that the Sixth “deals with the power of fate in life and death.”
Leonard Berstein recorded this symphony in 1987, near the end of his life and after coming out as gay. He doubled the timing of the final “dying” movement to a whopping 18 minutes. Music critic Peter Guttman stated that, “perhaps Bernstein found a release for his own conflicted life in the work with which Tchaikovsky ended his own.” Others found Bernstein’s version totally self-indulgent.
The new Decca CD is a wonderful reading and I highly recommend it. The Sixth Symphony is an enduring work that any true music lover should hear.
P.S. For you New Yorkers, a Tchaikovsky festival featuring Bychkov and the New York Philharmonic starts January 24, continuing until February 11.