Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony: An Ode to Sadness


Tchaikovsky wrote some very happy music in his time. Unfortunately, this isn't an example of that.

Ok, well it sort of is. But not in the way you'd expect. Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, named his 'Pathetique' symphony was his last. In my opinion, listening to Tchaikovsky's symphonies in order really shows his development as a composer, and so naturally this is him at his best. This symphony combines his incredible knack for writing beautiful, memorable melodies with his adept orchestral and emotional understanding. And really, if I'm honest, I think it's one of the best pieces of music ever written.

Tchaikovsky probably suffered from bipolar depression during his lifetime (which, if you wanted to, you could find 'evidence' of in his music), and this was perhaps, as some people might argue, due to his sexuality, which he was forced to hide. Evidence is relatively conclusive that Tchaikovsky was gay (although one must never assume) and had to hide this during his lifetime. Letters exist from Tchaikovsky to his nephew, 'Bob', for whom he had very strong affections, and it has been argued a lot that these affections were romantic and perhaps even sexual. In fact, Tchaikovsky wrote to 'Bob' about this very symphony, claiming that it would be a 'programme symphony', meaning that the music is supposed to represent something specific or tell a story, but that the programme in question would remain an 'enigma'.

This, coupled with the fact that Tchaikovsky had just lost the friendship and funding of a once close ally, Madame von Meck (and it isn't hard to work out potentially why this might have been) and the fact that he was filled with crippling doubt about the quality of his Fifth Symphony (another fantastic piece, by the way) meant that he really wasn't in a good place when he wrote this symphony. Add this to the fact that nine days after this Symphony's premier, Tchaikovsky died, and suddenly this symphony seems very tragic indeed (especially when you listen to it). It was first assumed that he died from cholera, although since a theory has gained headway that some important Russians found out about Tchaikovsky's sexuality and gave him an ultimatum - that either he killed himself or they exposed his 'secret'. And to drink a glass of un-boiled tap water at the time, when there was a cholera outbreak, was...a very reckless thing to do with, some might argue, inevitable consequences. However, we may never know for certain what really happened.

But, to quote myself in the first essay I ever wrote at university, 'theorising to too large an extent may detract from the musical value of the piece, instead shrouding it in a vague sense of controversy rather than stimulating musical appreciation.' And therefore, I hope you do enjoy the piece. It's one of my absolute favourites.

The first movement shows the world how much of a master Tchaikovsky had become. It is long, ambitious in many ways, and deeply emotional. At 13:53 one of the most epic moments in music of all time occurs, and is so heartfelt and gut-wrenching that it leaves you knowing that this symphony isn't going to be an easy ride, even though it is impressive. Pathetique, by the way, means passionate, not pathetic. And here, you can see why.

The second movement is arguably more ambitious than the first. Somehow, Tchaikovsky manages to create a completely natural sounding 5/4 melody that is both memorable and loving. And loving is the key word - this is very much a declaration of love. It could almost be seen as an outpouring of intense emotion through a controlled and ambiguous medium - but I'll let you decide that for yourself.

The third movement. Well then. If you didn't know there was a fourth coming, you'd be applauding, thinking the piece had finished. Its triumphant feel and grand ending is the typical last movement of a symphony of the time, but once the smoke clears...

We have the fourth movement. Not just the end of this symphony, not just the end of all of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, but the end of all of his published music during his lifetime. And it's absolutely heart-breaking. And also absolutely ingenious. What I love about this movement is that no instrument has the melody, or the harmony. Rather, in groups of instruments, they take it in turns to play the melody and harmony notes, which keep swapping between them. This means that if you're sitting in a concert hall, an actual stereo effect is created. And this has a very absorbing and unusual effect on the listener. As Beethoven's swansong ended with an Ode to Joy, Tchaikovsky's ends with an Ode to Sadness. After ten minutes of pure, desperate emotion, the music sinks to the lower instruments and gradually fades out, thus leaving Tchaikovsky's final mark on the world. 

Benjamin JacksonComment