The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer entitled the work "The Passionate Symphony", employing a Russian word, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning "passionate" or "emotional", that was then (mis-)translated into French as pathétique, meaning "solemn" or "emotive". The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on 6/18 November. It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the exact form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 4/16 December, conducted by Vasily Safonov. It was the last of Tchaikovsky's compositions premiered in his lifetime; his last composition of all, the single-movement 3rd Piano Concerto, Op. 75, which was completed in October 1893, a short time before his death, received a posthumous premiere.
After completing his 5th Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891. However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript "in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create." In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir "Bob" Davydov:
The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.
This work was the Symphony in E-flat, the first movement of which Tchaikovsky later converted into the one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto (his final composition), and the latter two movements of which Sergei Taneyev reworked after Tchaikovsky's death as the Andante and Finale.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky mentions an entirely new symphonic work in a letter to his brother:
I am now wholly occupied with the new work ... and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on 19 October for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving "in excellent spirits." However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky's brother Modest wrote, "There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played."
The symphony is in four movements:
- Adagio – Allegro non troppo (E minor - B minor - D major - ambiguous key - B major)
- The movement, in sonata form, frequently alternates speed, mood, and key, with the main key being B minor. It opens quietly with a low bassoon melody in E minor. Violins appear with the first theme of the Allegro in B minor, a faster variant of the slow opening melody, which eventually leads to the secondary theme in D major. The energetic development section begins abruptly, with an outburst from the orchestra, culminating in a refrain supported by brass and timpani. The movement concludes with the secondary theme in the recapitulation (as the first theme is omitted, because of the tension in the development section) and a coda where both parts are in B major, finally ending very quietly.
- Allegro con grazia (D major – B minor – D major)
- This dance movement, in ternary form, is in 5/4 time. It has been described as a "limping" waltz. The opening contrasts with the darker B section where the timpani sound on every beat. A graceful coda also ends the movement in quietness.
- Allegro molto vivace (G major – E major – G major)
- The scherzo is in a compound meter – 12/8 and 4/4, and in sonata form (without development). It begins with strings in a fast, exciting motif playing semiquavers against a woodwind 4/4 meter. It leads to the E major secondary theme in the exposition beginning with clarinet solo with string accompaniment. The opening theme reappears, now the first theme in the recapitulation, which later leads to the secondary theme, but this time in G major. The movement ends with a coda triumphantly, almost as a deceptive finale.
- Finale: Adagio lamentoso (B minor – D major – B minor – ambiguous key – B minor)
- Back in B minor, the slow movement is in sonata rondo form, in the structure of a six-part rondo form of A-B-A'-C-A"-B'. Beginning instantly with the exposition, the opening "A" theme melody on the first and second violins appears frequently through the movement. A calmer D major segment (the "B" subject in the exposition) builds into a full orchestral palette with brass and percussion, then leading into the restatement of the opening theme (first subject). Similar to the first movement, the turbulent climax lies in the development ("C" section), here with timpani roll and a descending sequence on the strings and marked con fuoco, followed by the recapitulation which begins with a more hyperactive restatement of the opening theme, on an F-sharp bass pedal. And then a somber funeral-like chorale is heard with the trombones and the tuba. The following second subject is melancholic and mournful as this time the key is in B minor instead of D major as in the exposition. The melody is then repeated with lower notes on cellos, basses, and bassoon, and finally ending quietly again in B minor and in total tragedy, which basically causes the final appearance of the first subject not heard, as if the Fade out occurs in the middle of the "B" theme in the recapitulation before the final appearance of "A" is heard.
Among Tchaikovsky's symphonies, this is the only one that ends in a minor key. His first, second, fourth and fifth symphonies, plus the Manfred Symphony, are all minor-key symphonies that end in the tonic major, while the home key of his third symphony is D major (even though it begins in D minor) and that of his unfinished Symphony in E-flat (unofficially "No. 7") is E-flat major.