Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”

On November 6th, 1893, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in St. Petersburg. Nine days later he was dead.

The symphony has been inextricable from the demise of its composer ever since, and in listening to the music, it is not difficult to understand why. Tchaikovsky’s hastily scribbled notes to himself in the planning stages of the composition show that the piece was always intended to be an exploration of life and death: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE,” he wrote. “First movement—all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH—result of collapse.) Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”

What was Tchaikovsky’s final dying away, and how much of it did he know when he composed and performed the Sixth? One plausible theory is that he drank unboiled water at a restaurant, a death sentence during a cholera epidemic. However, observers were suspicious of that explanation even at the time: why would a reputable restaurant have served a prominent citizen unboiled water? Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden suggested that, if cholera was the composer’s cause of death, it could have been contracted sexually, with the unboiled water explanation serving as a cover story.

British musicologist David Brown went further, stating that ‘‘That he committed suicide cannot be doubted, but what precipitated this suicide has not been conclusively established,” and that the composer “almost certainly died of arsenic poisoning.”

That, of course, brings us to the most tragic, and thus most widely-circulated, theory of the suicide of Tchaikovsky: the claim, made by Soviet musicologist Alexandra Orlova, that the uncle of a young man with whom Tchaikovsky had a romantic liason wrote a letter of complaint to the Czar, causing the assembly of a hasty “court of honor” of the composer’s former classmates, who censured his homosexuality and ordered him to die as a result.

It would be pleasant to believe that the frisson that this theory produces in modern audiences is due entirely to our horror and righteous indignation at the barbarism of such an (alleged) practice. It would be more realistic to accept that our thinking on Tchaikovsky’s death, and thus the Sixth Symphony, is more of a Rorschach test for musicologists and audiences than it is a scholarly debate or a measure of social progress. As for the composer himself, he was both definite on the piece’s worth, and withdrawn on its meaning. “I love it as I have never loved any one of my musical offspring before,” he wrote to his nephew. “[It] will remain an enigma to all— let them guess it who can.”