Presenter Information

Jacob R. Leonowitz

Abstract

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathétique”) was welcomed only lukewarmly at its 1893 premiere. Among other things, audiences were confused by Tchaikovsky’s atypical choice of a slow and lamenting final movement to conclude the symphony. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death only days after the Pathétique’s premiere spawned rumors that the composer had committed suicide after years of struggling with his homosexuality. The public consequently embraced the work with new understanding, perceiving it as a “musical suicide note.” Primary sources, however, including the composer’s brother and Xeniya Davydov, provided accounts relating to the end of Tchaikovsky’s life which counter suicide rumors. Nonetheless, the notion of the Pathétique as a funereal, autobiographical melodrama has survived. The musicologist Timothy Jackson argues that the understanding of the work as a “musical suicide note,” and/or tragic narrative about forbidden love influenced later composers such as Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Berg, and Britten, among others. Jackson draws formal, harmonic, and other parallels between the Pathétique and the works of these composers to show how they used compositional techniques from the Pathétique to further their own musical narratives about death, love, and unrequited desires. I argue that these later works intensified an irresistible tendency to perceive the Pathétique as a tragic autobiography, in spite of primary source material indicating Tchaikovsky’s optimism at the time. The progression of music history since the time of the Pathétique’s premiere has made it impossible for us to perceive the work (especially its enigmatic final movement) otherwise.

School

Mary Pappert School of Music

Advisor

Benjamin Binder, Ph.D.

Submission Type

Paper

Included in

Music Commons

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Apr 6th, 12:00 AM

Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky symphony, Tchaikovsky compositions, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, Pathétique Symphony, Symphony No. 6

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathétique”) was welcomed only lukewarmly at its 1893 premiere. Among other things, audiences were confused by Tchaikovsky’s atypical choice of a slow and lamenting final movement to conclude the symphony. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death only days after the Pathétique’s premiere spawned rumors that the composer had committed suicide after years of struggling with his homosexuality. The public consequently embraced the work with new understanding, perceiving it as a “musical suicide note.” Primary sources, however, including the composer’s brother and Xeniya Davydov, provided accounts relating to the end of Tchaikovsky’s life which counter suicide rumors. Nonetheless, the notion of the Pathétique as a funereal, autobiographical melodrama has survived. The musicologist Timothy Jackson argues that the understanding of the work as a “musical suicide note,” and/or tragic narrative about forbidden love influenced later composers such as Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Berg, and Britten, among others. Jackson draws formal, harmonic, and other parallels between the Pathétique and the works of these composers to show how they used compositional techniques from the Pathétique to further their own musical narratives about death, love, and unrequited desires. I argue that these later works intensified an irresistible tendency to perceive the Pathétique as a tragic autobiography, in spite of primary source material indicating Tchaikovsky’s optimism at the time. The progression of music history since the time of the Pathétique’s premiere has made it impossible for us to perceive the work (especially its enigmatic final movement) otherwise.