Tchaikovsky has something of a mixed reputation: He is loved for his great tunes, yet derided for repeating them once too often with a great deal of emotional embellishment in the strings. And he’s been ill-served by scholarship; biographers have tended to interpret his music based on incorrect perceptions of his life. This is perhaps especially true of his great final symphony, the “Pathétique.” The symphony was completed and premiered close to the time of Tchaikovsky’s death, but was not a premonition of it. (Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly during a cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg.) And while the music is certainly “pathos-laden,” or full of feeling, as the nickname suggests, the morbid feelings in question are not personal.
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony explores the metaphysics of death, musically contrasting the idealism of humankind and our naive dreams of transcendence with our pathetic material condition, the fact that we are made of flesh and blood, and that we will all die. The composer hinted to his friends and admirers that the work might contain secret messages, but he never told them what they were. “Let them guess,” he said.
What caused the most guessing is an obvious quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem just after the climax of the first movement. This reference to a sacred ritual is paired, at the end of the fourth movement, with a symphonic enactment of the actual experience of death. The orchestra articulates, through morendo dynamics and the darkest instrumental coloring possible, the dying of the light. Ultimately, however, death is unknowable, and the structure of each of the movements is thus as irrational as its subject matter. Conventional forms are shunned as are conventional harmonic patterns. Even the movement between tonal areas or keys is unusual: Rather than using fifths, or fourths, or even thirds, Tchaikovsky moves between keys related by semitone, lending a leaden affect to the proceedings. And then there are the weird references to fanfares, waltzes, and marches-a patchwork of half-remembered musical tropes that suggests the score is a collection of deathbed memories. Each of these references is distorted, rendered strange. The second movement, for example, is a waltz with five beats to the measure instead of the familiar three.
Tchaikovsky was pleased with the “Pathétique,” and told his publisher that he was extremely proud of himself for assembling such a gorgeous work. It was composed during a wonderful time in his life-a life he had no sense was about to end. During an outing to the theater in his final week, he was disheartened when the conversation with his brother and their friends turned grim. He changed the topic, declaring, in the flush of the success of the “Pathétique,” that he was certain he would “live a long time.”