June 18, 2016

101 Reel-to-Reel Tapes 119: Tchaikovsky ~ Symphony #6 (Pathétique)

reel-to-reel tape cover
photo by Styrous®

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I started the Vinyl LP series because I have a collection of over 20,000 vinyl record albums I am selling; each blog entry is about an album from my collection. The 101 Reel-to-Reel Tapes series is an extension of that collection. Inquire for information here.   

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I remember hearing Glenn Miller with his big band and perform a beautiful song with vocal by Ray Eberly on the radio. I wasn't to find out until I was in my late teens that the theme came from the 6th Symphony by Tchaikovsky.       

The second theme of the first movement formed the basis of this popular song in the 1940s, (This is) The Story of a Starry Night (by Mann Curtis, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston) and was popularized by Glenn Miller. This same theme is the music behind Where, a 1959 hit for Tony Williams and the Platters as well as In Time, by Steve Lawrence in 1961. All the songs have completely different lyrics (YouTube links below).   

The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is the final completed symphony written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky between February and the end of August 1893. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on 6/18 November. It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the exact form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 4/16 December, conducted by Vasily Safonov.           

In 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891.[5] However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript "in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create."[5] In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir "Bob" Davydov:
"The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable."


Richard Taruskin notes, "Suicide theories were much stimulated by the Sixth Symphony, which was first performed under the composer's baton only nine days before his demise, with its lugubrious finale (ending morendo, 'dying away'), its brief but conspicuous allusion to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement and above all its easily misread subtitle. . . . When the symphony was done again a couple of weeks later, in memoriam and with subtitle in place, everyone listened hard for portents, and that is how the symphony became a transparent suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. 'Homosexual tragedy' came later." David Brown describes the idea of the Sixth Symphony as some sort of suicide note as "patent nonsense". Alexander Poznansky writes, "Since the arrival of the 'court of honour' theory in the West, performances of Tchaikovsky's last symphony are almost invariably accompanied by annotations treating it as a testimony of homosexual martyrdom." Other scholars, including Michael Paul Smith, believe that with or without the supposed 'court of honour' sentence, there is no way that Tchaikovsky could have known the time of his own death while composing his last masterpiece.     

The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means "passionate" or "emotional," not "arousing pity," but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaya or "Program Symphony") but realized that would encourage curiosity about the program, which he did not want to reveal. According to his brother Modest, he suggested the Патетическая title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title, but in any event his publisher chose to keep it and the title remained. Its French translation Pathétique is generally used in French, Spanish, English, German and other languages.

program notes
photos by Styrous®

The Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.   

A suggested program has been what Taruskin disparagingly termed "symphony as suicide note." This idea began to assert itself as early as the second performance of the symphony in Saint Petersburg, not long after the composer had died. People at that performance "listened hard for portents. As always, they found what they were looking for: a brief but conspicuous quotation from the Russian Orthodox requiem at the stormy climax of the first movement, and of course the unconventional Adagio finale with its tense harmonies at the onset and its touching depiction of the dying of the light in conclusion". Countering this is Tchaikovsky's statement on 26 September/8 October 1893 that he was in no mood to write any sort of requiem. This was in reply to a suggestion from his close friend Grand Duke Konstantin that he write a requiem for their mutual friend the writer Aleksey Apukhtin, who had died in late August, just as Tchaikovsky was completing the Pathétique.         

Recorded 10 March 1960, Broadwood Hotel

Total playing time: 46:37  


I- Adagio    
II- Allegro    
III- Allegro Molto    
IV- Finale

Net links:         
Eugene Ormandy -  Sym #. 6 in B Minor "Pathetique" on YouTube 
Glenn Miller - The Story Of A Starry Night on YouTube            
The Platters - Where on YouTube         
Steve Lawrence - In Time on YouTube       

Tchaikovsky on the Viewfinder:                  
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky       
1812 Overture     
The Nutcracker & Joyous Tidings           
Swan Lake        
Van Cliburn & Sputnik ~ 1958     


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