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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

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

Fourth Movement

The last movement of a symphony usually gives composers fits. It began as something that dissipated the tension built by the previous three movements. Thus, in the classical symphony, you typically have a rondo (a less weighty form than sonata-allegro), rather witty in tone. Even something as wonderful as the last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter") one can regard as a display of elaborate wit.

Beethoven changed all that. With his symphonies 3, 5, 7, and especially 9, he upped the payoff expected from a symphony's last movement. Instead of dissipating tension, the last movement was to accomplish a catharsis of high emotion. The structure accordingly grew more complex, as complex as a first movement. Such an expectation even affected an essentially classical composer like Mendelssohn, who kept fiddling with the last movement of his "Italian" symphony until he died. As I think of it now (undoubtedly, one of you out there will remind of someone I should have mentioned), only Brahms and occasionally Dvořák solved the problem that Beethoven set. By Bruckner and Mahler, you already have something else – influenced by Beethoven, no doubt, but still something other, if only because the time-scale is so greatly expanded.

Tchaikovsky avoids the classical and the Beethoven finale altogether in a bold stroke. Here is a non-classical form which bears, I think, the greatest emotional tension in the symphony. Tchaikovsky isn't lightening you (as Haydn) or en-lightening you (as Beethoven). He's charging you up with Romantic despair. By the way, this movement is largely responsible for Tchaikovsky's incredibly high reputation as a symphonist at his death. Most critics (even the so-called "Brahminen") considered him Brahms' superior – hard to believe, but true.

Formally, the movement is very simple, but, as in the second movement, Tchaikovsky builds into it many points of interest. The work consists of 2 groups of themes:

1. A descending idea in B minor, harmonized mainly in chords
2. Another descending idea in D, in a slightly faster tempo.

The B minor idea, however, is not what it seems, but a "trick of the ear." No instrument that plays this theme (1) actually has the descending scalar fragment you hear. Instruments criss-cross each other to produce the effect. This is one of the few places where you really need a stereo system with great imaging or a good seat at a live performance. The difference between harmonized descending scales and what Tchaikovsky actually writes is subtly disturbing, but nevertheless there. Tchaikovsky states the idea, and accents it with single notes played by wind instruments. The single notes grow into counter-melodies. After an upward leap by the strings (in chords), Tchaikovsky repeats theme 1, but changes the wind accents for darker instruments like the bassoon.

Out of this murk, comes the second theme, like the "good twin" of the first, full of hope. It builds to a climax in the full orchestra. The rhythm becomes more energetic and stops abruptly. The second theme begins again, but this time it is more ambiguously harmonized. Technically, we are moving back to B minor.

The first group is restated and repeated. Tchaikovsky tacks on an extension in a quicker tempo and builds to a climax. The harmony seems to want to lighten, but it doesn't make it. Instead, the first group enters at least forte (loud) and dies. There is a long coda, in which theme 2, originally a break in the clouds, is now harmonized in the same dark colors as theme 1. The movement sinks back into the murk of the opening of the first movement.

I must admit, it took me a long time to appreciate this movement. I swore Tchaikovsky had the order wrong. Nothing could possibly follow the blazing march. Furthermore, I wasn't listening to very good performances. THIS is the movement that really tests a conductor. Too often, it comes out as weak-Willie swoops and swoons. Two years ago, listening to a live performance with Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra, the emotional steel at the core of this movement hit me for the first time. I've since heard other performances (notably Mravinsky and Koussevitzky) which have this same power to convince.

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996

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