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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Symphony #6 "Pathétique" in B minor, Op. 74

Third Movement

This is probably my single favorite Tchaikovsky piece and was undoubtedly responsible for my presenting Tchaikovsky with the coveted Schwartz Best Composer Ever Award when I was 7. Formally, it's a pretty straightforward scherzo in the form of a march. However, it has so many brilliantly unusual moments, I'm going to have trouble fitting them all in to a reasonable space.

The movement opens with perpetual motion (the Italian term is "moto perpetuo") in the strings with an interesting counterpoint of a fanfare motive of fourths and descending successive fourths, first heard in the oboe in a rhythm that foreshadows the main rhythm of the movement. Basically, the fourths sound slightly odd because we expect either stepwise motion (the notes of a scale) or the outline of a triad (essentially, the notes of a chord). A rhythm of "Rum tum-ti Tum tum" is quickly established over the moto perpetuo and takes over the movement.

There are five major themes:

  • 1a. The perpetual motion
  • 1b. The descending successive fourths, which turns into fanfares
  • 1c. A march theme in minor mode
  • 2a. A march theme in major mode
  • 2b. A syncopated chordal theme

As we've seen him do before, Tchaikovsky sounds some of these themes simultaneously and shows the relation of 1b and 2a especially.

A minor-mode march sounds. This leads back to 1a with the 1b descending fourths counterpoint prominent. A transition section follows of variations of the fanfares and winds up with the second march theme, this time in E major. We realize at this point, that this is the theme that everything has been leading to: the fanfares, the emphases on fourths, and the perpetual motion. The march theme, in the Rum-ti-Tum tum rhythm, begins entirely out of successive fourths and this interval reappears at important structural points in the theme. It's unusual that the SECOND theme should bear the formal and emotional weight of the movement, but Tchaikovsky brings it off.

(By the way, he takes the same risk in the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1. There, while formally the second theme is the more important, emotionally it pales beside that magnificent striding first. You're always waiting for the first theme to reappear, even though you know it never will.)

It appears first quietly on the clarinet - quietly, because there's still about 7 minutes to go and he can't shoot off all his rockets at once. This leads to 2b, noteworthy because it's one of the few places the perpetual motion and the main rhythm disappear.

Another transition follows to a restatement of the first group of themes which are then repeated. Again, more fanfares, growing fuller and louder, leading to rocket whistles in the strings and high winds, herald the magnificent march, this time full-blown. 2b reappears and gets extended in an upward scale (with many fantastic chord changes along the way). More fanfares follow, and again the march. This time, Tchaikovsky seems determined to levitate you 6 inches above your chair. This leads to a coda in which fragments of the march are heard to a powerful conclusion. All through this movement, Tchaikovsky has been throwing in hair- raising dissonances (partly the result of the fourths, partly out of left field) that have absolutely nothing to do with the key of the moment. People complain about Stravinsky, but some of this stuff is just as wonderful and it gets by audiences, who seem (to quote James Agee) to have "been raped in their sleep."

Stravinsky insisted upon his own artistic debt to Tchaikovsky. I see the debt most easily in scherzi like this one (compare Stravinsky's "Fireworks").

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996

Forward to the Fourth Movement,
back to the Second Movement,
back to the Introduction,
or back to Tchaikovsky

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