Tchaikovsky: The symphony nº 6, the “Pathetique”, an analysis

Tchaikovsky:The symphony nº 6, the “Pathetique”


3 flutes (one of them doubles as a piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam and string.

First movement

Tempi: adagio – allegro ma non troppo – andante – allegro vivo – andante come prima – adagio – andante. Form: sonata form (with exposition, development, and recapitulation sections).

Tonality: B minor – C major – B major.

Adagio – The deep melancholy that this symphony emanates is present from the first bars. The bassoon, with a somber, tremulous, almost drowned voice, presents a very simple theme, consisting of a series of ascending minor thirds (E-G, F#-A, G-B), which rest on the major second, and that finish in the fifth grade, the note si in this case (see figure 1 below). However, the meticulousness that Tchaikovsky puts into the dynamics makes the theme sound gloomy, deathly exhausted. The string accompanies with exquisite discretion; only the viola does a small imitation of this theme. The theme is re-exposed, now fragmentarily played by clarinets, oboes and violas.


Figure 1: Introduction topic.

Allegro non troppo – The first theme of the allegro appears , with a certain nervous character – flickering, we would say. The first half of the theme is actually an elaboration of the phrase that opened the adagio ; the second part is a descending idea written with a certain melodic development (it goes in sixteenth notes, again, with a careful articulation); see figure 2. The harmonization of the descending idea is an alternation of diminished and tonic chords; ends in the dominant.


Figure 2: first theme of the allegro.

The theme runs through several families of instruments, with thriving interruptions of the strings. The orchestral density increases, as the horns join with a secondary theme, but the voices are perfectly intelligible. The timbal is added, emphatic, backbone, with a series of fifth intervals. The orchestra rushes to a commanding climax, necessitated by everything we’ve heard before. However, Tchaikovsky concludes the passage by letting the instruments fade one by one until only the string is left, which is recreated still hesitantly, subtly, in the motif of the previous theme. The string sings an ascending phrase, in adagio , which leads to the andante, in which the second theme of the allegro is expounded.

Andante – The andante begins with an introduction by the violins that anticipates the sensual character of the second theme. Observe the melodic line, so balanced, full of dynamic contrasts, with an exquisite articulation.


introductory theme Figure 3: Andante .

Clarinets and bassoons exchange the theme in an accomplice courtship, like two old friends who evoke the adventures that made them wise. The strings provide a captivating rhythmic background.


Figure 4: second subject of the allegro.

Again, instruments from other families contribute to the orchestral development of the theme. The theme, however, does not progress in terms of tension. As happened before, the orchestra unravels in melodies that come together one by one in unison, only broken by the violins that play the introductory theme to the second theme. The music fades, each time it is slower, more tenuous, it touches the dying. Tchaikovsky goes so far as to mark pppppp, a provocative gesture to force the interpreter to the minimum dynamic, at the threshold of perception. The bassoon plays the last four faint notes. Everything goes off.

Allegro – Suddenly, without the slightest foreshadowing, like the merciless ax of a god, like a ferocious metaphor of fatal destiny, a very strong eruption of fury takes over the orchestra. Nothing predicted it and now we perceive it as inevitable. The low string vibrates feverishly hammering a pedal note, the note C. The rest of the strings and the woodwinds clinch a wild melodic motif, which is repeated like a sequence in a crazy journey towards the high tessitura.


Figure 5: Beginning of the fierce allegro vivo .

The fury of the orchestra breaks out again in this development section. The viola plays a diabolical theme with frantic ups and downs. Flutes, clarinets and oboes shriek syncopated notes above the tumult. The metal wind acts as a counterpoint with melodic cells that fall to the bottom of the low register.

In the midst of all this frenzy, the first violins expose all the elements of the first theme (figure 2) in a terrifying fugue passage; even in the middle of the pandemonium we manage to hear fragments, like stubble in the wind, of the second theme (figure 4). The formidable transformation of the themes continues. The fury seems to gradually subside. Now two voices are clearly distinguished, that of the metals, firm and sure, and that of the violins, which go off-beat with tied notes.

The atmosphere seems to have calmed down, but the harmony tells us that no, that there is latent tension. A new crescendo , as gradual as it is inexorable, takes us to another section where the development is less chaotic, but of equal emotional force. Now the violins take up the theme first and expose it in the form of a sequence that rises towards the treble. The horns provide a syncopated accompaniment, where nothing falls on the downbeat. The flutes join the violins. The metal wind acquires strength in its responses to the violins.

Everything ends in a passage of great intensity exaltation: waterspouts and trumpets obsessively play triplets; metal wind and violins are recreated in the first five notes of the first theme, enunciated like a motto, with the same obsession. The climax is resolved like other times in this work: by dissolution, by fading of the instrumental texture. Finally there are the violins and the metal wind, who with a dialogue on a F# pedal played by the double basses, head towards the end of this section.

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Andante come prima – The introductory theme of the previous andante reappears (figure 3) in all its splendor. Here Tchaikovsky demonstrates his melodic mastery, his talent as a symphony planner. This theme is exposed with an intense lyricism, which relieves us of the previous fury.

Although the theme is entrusted to the violins, the countermelodies and the responses of the rest of the instruments help to highlight the tenderness of this andante. The movement ends with a very soft chorale of brass, full of serenity, played over a pizzicato of the strings.

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