Original version between 1891-92 (see below); new version in February/March 1893, orchestrated during the summer 1893 at Klin
October 28, 1893 in St. Petersburg, conducted by Tchaikovsky
The genesis of the Sixth Symphony dates back to 1889, when Tchaikovsky expressed a desire to write a symphony for the czar that would be the grand conclusion to his compositional career. He set about writing this proposed symphony between 1891-92, but became suddenly dissatisfied with it, going so far as to destroy it and start completely anew. In a letter to his brother dated February 22, 1893, Tchaikovsky writes:
I told you that I had completed a symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.1
As tragic as this story is to all music lovers, the sketches for the first version of the symphony were not entirely destroyed. One movement from the discarded symphony was eventually used in his Third Piano Concerto, and a number of composers have reworked other discarded movements since Tchaikovsky’s death.2 Tchaikovsky composed the new version of his Sixth Symphony between February and March of 1893, and orchestrated it in Klin3 that summer.
Tchaikovsky seems to have had conflicting opinions regarding the quality of his new Sixth Symphony as well. In a letter to his nephew Vladimir Davydov (to whom the symphony was dedicated) on August 15, 1893, Tchaikovsky wrote:
I am very pleased with its content but dissatisfied, or rather not completely satisfied, with its instrumentation. Somehow everything is turning out not quite as I had thought… But I definitely consider it the best, and, especially, the most sincere of all my works. I love it as I have never loved any one of my other musical offspring.4
Two months later, on October 19, Tchaikovsky confided to his friend Nikolai Kashkin that he still had doubts about the last movement, and was contemplating destroying it and composing yet another finale after the upcoming October 28th premiere.5
The underwhelming reception at the Sixth Symphony’s premiere (conducted by Tchaikovsky) probably did little to dissuade him from this plan. The orchestra musicians, whose opinion Tchaikovsky valued most, seemed disinterested and unimpressed with the new symphony; although the complexity of the music itself should not be understated, this strained dynamic between conductor and musicians likely contributed to the symphony’s lukewarm reception. However, the second performance on November 18 (conducted by Eduard Nápravník) garnered a highly emotional and enthusiastic response from the crowd.
Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky would not live to see the symphony receive such recognition—he died in the early morning hours of November 6, only nine days after the Sixth’s premiere. His death is conventionally attributed to cholera, since Tchaikovsky reportedly drank a glass of un-boiled water only a week beforehand. Many people have difficulty accepting the fact that Tchaikovsky died in such an ignoble manner, and have formulated their own theories regarding the “true” cause of his sudden death. Ultimately, though, it was the timing of his death—so soon after the premiere—that helped the Sixth Symphony reach an almost mythical status.
As he did for his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky left no known written program for the Sixth. Interestingly, his original subtitle for the work was Programme Symphony, despite never intending to reveal what the program actually was. As he wrote to Vladimir in February, 1893:
During the journey (to Odessa) the idea for a new symphony occurred to me, this time a programme-symphony but with a programme that shall remain an enigma to all—they may guess as they please but the symphony will be called simply “Programme Symphony” (No. 6). This programme is deeply subjective and while composing it in my mind during my journey I often wept bitterly.6
After the premiere, Tchaikovsky lamented that he needed to change the title, since he realized that he couldn’t just call it "Programme Symphony" without revealing the program.7 His brother suggested "Pathétique," and Tchaikovsky wrote it down onto the title page immediately, giving the symphony the title we all know today.
1 Burk, 351.
2 Roland John Wiley, “Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il’yich,” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51766pg6 (accessed April 1, 2011).
3 Klin is small town located outside of Moscow.
4 Field, 669.
5 Burk, 353.
6 Field, 669.
7 Ibid., 670.