Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique

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Piston: Symphony No. 7
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”


Symphony No. 7

COMPOSER: Born January 20, 1894, Rockland, me; died November 12, 1976, Belmont, ma
WORK COMPOSED: 1960, as a commission for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dedicated to Eugene Ormandy.
WORLD PREMIERE: Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 10, 1961, at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, wood block, 2 harps, and strings

“The essential part of composition, the creative part, cannot be taught. A composer is answerable only to himself.” – Walter Piston

Any music theory or composition student knows the name Walter Piston. His textbook, Harmony, written in 1941, is still used by students today. After serving as a musician in U.S. Navy bands during World War I, Piston attended Harvard, where he studied composition and music theory. In 1924, Piston traveled to Paris to work with renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and composer Paul Dukas. Piston’s students at Harvard, where he taught from 1926 until his retirement in 1960, included Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham, among others.

But Piston was as much composer as teacher. He enjoyed considerable success as a composer during his lifetime, garnering three New York Music Critic’s Circle Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes (for his Third and Seventh symphonies, respectively). Piston’s music was frequently programmed by American orchestras, particularly the Boston Symphony, during the 1940s and ’50s. However, since his death in 1976, Piston’s music makes only occasional appearances in orchestra concerts. Piston’s music radiates life, craft, drama, and sophisticated wit; his fame as a teacher should not overshadow his substantial talent as a composer.

Piston won his second Pulitzer Prize for Symphony No. 7 in 1961. Biographer Howard Pollack calls it Piston’s “pastoral” symphony, particularly for the primary theme of the Adagio, and for its resemblance to Piston’s New England Sketches, which the composer explained were inspired by – but not literal descriptions of – nature. Rhythmic drive characterizes the dynamic Con moto, while Piston’s mastery of orchestral timbre shows to great effect in the Adagio pastorale, which features a plaintive solo for English horn and later solo flute. The Allegro festevole combines the energy of the first movement with the brilliant colors of the second, and concludes with a jubilant shout.


Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16

COMPOSER: April 27, 1891, Sontsovka, Bakhmutsk region, Yekaterinoslav district, Ukraine; died March 5, 1953, Moscow
WORK COMPOSED: Original version 1913, revised 1923
WORLD PREMIERE: At the Vauxhall in Pavlosk, outside Moscow, on September 5, 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: November 7, 2005; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Freddy Kempf, piano
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, and strings

In December 1912, a group of Russian Futurist poets, led by 19-year-old Vladimir Mayakovsky, issued a manifesto entitled “Slap to the Public’s Taste.” This pamphlet repudiated all traditional forms of art and artists, and expressed an “invincible hate for the language that existed before.” Mayakovsky and his associates advocated radical change in all forms of art and literature while encouraging individualism and nonconformity.

Sergei Prokofiev admired Mayakovsky’s poetry and respected his provocative artistic aesthetic. The two met at the Poets’ Café in Moscow, and Mayakovsky inscribed a copy of his poem “War and the World” for Prokofiev: “To the World President of Music from the World President of Poetry.” Like Mayakovsky’s poetry, 21-year-old Prokofiev’s music was intended to shock.

Prokofiev began composing his Second Piano Concerto while enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory; the original score was destroyed in a fire during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Six years later, Prokofiev used his preliminary sketches to recreate it. He reintroduced it on May 8, 1924, in Paris with Serge Koussevitzky conducting.

The 1913 premiere did generate an intensely negative audience reaction, of which the following account is typical: “Seats emptied one by one. At last the Concerto came to an end . . . most of the audience were hissing and shouting angrily. ‘To hell with this futurist music!’ people were heard to exclaim. ‘The cats on the roof make better music!’ Another group – the progressive critics – were in raptures: ‘A work of genius! How original! What spirit and invention!’”

The solo piano begins the Andantino with the primary theme, a romantic, mysterious melody with hints of dark complexity. The winds dialogue with the piano as the theme repeats. A bouncier, more agitated counter-melody is unveiled by the piano; however, it is the primary theme that dominates the majority of the first movement, which is developed and rearticulated in an extended solo section for the piano. The Scherzo is two and a half minutes of dazzling scale passages and eye-and ear-popping virtuosic tricks for the soloist, while the contrasting Intermezzo features an elephantine ostinato (repeating melodic and/or rhythmic pattern) in the low strings, punctuated by long dissonant blats from the brasses. The piano music’s weight and power has a primitive quality; this section may have sparked the 1913 audience’s reaction. In the closing Allegro tempestoso, Prokofiev unleashes fire and energy, and gives the pianist an extended solo. The concerto ends with a return to the fourth movement’s opening brilliance and irrepressible energy.


Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

COMPOSER: Born May 7, 1840, Kamsko-Votinsk, Viatka province, Russia; died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
WORK COMPOSED: 1893; dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew Vladimir Davidov.
WORLD PREMIERE: Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance on October 28, 1893.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: October 16, 2012; Aziz Shokhakimov, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, and strings

“I love it as I have never loved any one of my musical offspring before.” —Tchaikovsky, regarding his Sixth Symphony

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s most controversial work continues to spark debate more than 100 years after its composition. Although Tchaikovsky declined to articulate the specifics of the program he attached to this symphony – “Let them guess at it!” he wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov – many scholars and critics agree that this passionate, highly emotional music is a declaration of forbidden love; namely, that of Tchaikovsky for Davidov. The title “Pathétique” supports this interpretation, as it suggests the grande passion pathétique of French opera. Biographer John Warrack writes, “The Russian word . . . carries more feeling of ‘passionate’ or ‘emotional’ in it than the English ‘pathetic,’ and perhaps an overtone, which has largely vanished from our world . . . of ‘suffering.’”

Tchaikovsky died of unknown causes ten days after conducting the first performance of the “Pathétique.” Like his hero Mozart, the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death have sparked numerous rumors, and the cause of his death has never been definitively established. Tchaikovsky’s brother and first biographer Modest said Tchaikovsky died from cholera contracted after drinking tainted water; others claim he committed suicide to avoid the publicity of his advances to a male student. There is no clear evidence one way or the other, and debate will no doubt continue.

The Adagio—Allegro ma non troppo begins with a dark and forbidding bassoon solo, the primary theme of the first movement. After the slow Adagio, the strings burst in with an agitated restatement of the bassoon solo, followed by a contrasting theme full of melancholy nostalgia. The movement descends into chaos as the themes are developed, ripped apart, and tossed about in a tempest of sound. A solemn brass chorale with pizzicato string accompaniment draws the movement to a close. In the Allegro con grazia, Tchaikovsky presents a graceful waltz in the unusual meter 5/4, which sweeps through the strings like a gentle wind. Although the overall mood of this movement is lighter than that of the first, Tchaikovsky infuses the music with strong sense of sadness and hints of romantic despair. The vigorous march of the Allegro molto vivace offsets the melancholy of the first two movements. This powerful, masculine music boldly proclaims itself with insouciant swagger. The closing Adagio lamentoso begins with an anguished cry in the strings. This music succumbs to its own beautifully crafted fatalism, laden with pain and lamentation. The strings are interrupted by a blast from the brasses, after which the strings continue on their mournful way to a subdued conclusion, in which there is no hint of a happy ending.

Interestingly, the first performance of the Sixth Symphony was not a success, but after the second performance, just days after Tchaikovsky’s death, it was hailed as a symphonic masterpiece.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Piston: Symphony No. 7
Jorge Mester – Louisville Orchestra
Albany Records 11

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
André Previn – London Symphony Orchestra
2-Decca 452588

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Zubin Mehta – Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
2-Sony Classical 721081

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6
Yevgeny Mravinsky – Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
2-Deutsche Grammophon 419745

Carlo Maria Giulini – Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 400029

Manfred Honeck – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Reference Recordings 720