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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter P

Letter P
Pathétique

"Pathétique" is the title suggested to Tchaikovsky for his Symphony No 6 in b minor, the day after the premiere on 28 October 1893.

Tchaikovsky had spent the month of August scoring the symphony. 'I'm very proud of the symphony,' he wrote. '… and I think it's one of my best works; I definitely consider it the best and in particular, the most sincere of all my works. I love it as I have never loved any other of my musical offspring.'

The audience response was lukewarm, which Tchaikovsky put down to bewilderment, rather than hostility. This might have had something to do with the usual structure of the symphony, with its brooding opening, fast - almost swaggering - third movement, and slow and bitterly pessimistic-sounding conclusion.

Tchaikovsky's biographer David Brown* explains what happened next: Tchaikovsky's brother Modest claimed credit for its final title. 'After the performance the brothers had discussed, without success, what this should be. "I left the room with Piotr Ilich still undecided," Modest recalled. "Then suddenly the title Pathétique came into my head. I returned and I remember as though it was yesterday pronouncing the word while standing in the doorway. 'Capital, Modest, bravo, Pathétique!' - and in my presence he inscribed on the score the name that has remained ever since."'

David Brown sums up the atmosphere of that final movement - the catalyst, surely, for the notion that a title might offer some explanatory key to the music - as follows: 'The result is the most explicit emotional declaration in all Tchaikovsky's works, a mixture of anguish, brooding and sorrow which finally retreats into the subterranean gloom in which the whole symphony had started, fading into oblivion. It is not surprising that Tchaikovsky rated the Sixth Symphony as among the most sincere of his works.'

© Graeme Kay/BBC

References: *Brown, David: Tchaikovsky - the Man and his Music, Faber and Faber Ltd., London (2006)

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