The Passion of Tchaikovsky's Last Symphony: Pathéthique

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Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the 6th, is called the Pathéthique not because it arouses pity but because it is passionate and emotional. The composer wrote it in the final year of his short life in 1893. The premiere took place just 9 days before his suicide at age 53, where he drank unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. He was gay and about to outed and publicly shamed. He was one of Russia’s most beloved composers, and a favorite of the Tsars. I’ve read that he was told to either end his life or that others would do it for him. It wasn’t easy being famous and homosexual in St. Petersburg. At about the same time, Oscar Wilde was being sent to prison for being gay. Tchaikovsky was married and a closeted gay man; his lover was his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, pictured above, to whom he dedicated his final symphony and bequeathed all future royalties after his death on November 6th, 1893. Davydov had an equally powerful inner turmoil and a similar sad end: he turned to morphine and other drugs and committed suicide in 1906 at the age of 34.

The devastating power of the 6th is obvious almost from the beginning. It’s almost as if the symphony is trying to be bright and more upbeat, but the darkness is always looming. Leonard Bernstein, after emerging from the closet in the late 1980s, recorded the symphony in 1990 and extended the final somber movement, “Adagio Lamentoso”, to over 17 minutes–almost twice as long as any other recording. It’s not too far to suggest he must have felt a strong connection to the great Russian composer from 100 years before.

The final movement is a dirge, slow and plodding, and literally just dies at the end. It is a profound and devastating meditation on death, which the composer must have been contemplating. When the music stops, there is just emptiness. There is no bang or whisper, just emptiness and the void.

Listen to the final movement of the Bernstein recording by clicking on these links:

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