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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Symphony #6 "Pathétique" in B minor, Op. 74

First Movement

The piece opens in E minor, with bassoons in slow time foreshadowing the main theme's rise through a minor third. Through a very neat modulation, we reach the key of B minor and a quicker tempo with the main theme proper, consisting of three parts:

1a. The stepwise rise to a minor third and the fall of a second, in a eighth-eighth-quarter-eighth rhythm beginning on the upbeat to the measure.
1b. The run of sixteenths that immediately follow.
1c. A long passage of 16ths, starting high and descending to the lower registers of the violins.

The theme has the wonderful faculty that its parts can all sound simultaneously. Tchaikovsky takes full advantage of this in his first statement and at the same time manages to hint at the shape of his second theme (2a). Furthermore, Tchaikovsky practices a kind of musical modularity, in which 1a gets fitted with new leadins and falloffs, particularly a fanfare which consists of a leap of a fourth joined to 1a which in turn extends itself by one note upward to the third of the scale. This section reaches a climax and then falls back, making way for the second subject proper.

The second subject, in D Major, is song-like and comes in on the strings. It consists of two parts:

2a. A motive of mostly eighth notes which falls (goes from high to low) and which Tchaikovsky extends by repetition and by joing a second half which is the same fall in a different rhythm (quarter-eighth-eighth-quarter-quarter)
2b. A motive which rises, mostly stepwise, in mainly a triplet rhythm.

The orchestra gives a complete treatment to 2a. The tempo picks up slightly, and a flute and bassoon begin 2b and are quickly joined by many other instruments (I don't have the score, so I can't readily name them). As I've implied, 2b is essentially a rising scale, and Tchaikovsky sets off against it other upward scales on different pitches at different speeds. Toward the end, he even brings in a variant of 2a while all this goes on. It's like watching a quiet chain reaction. The "statistical density" (to borrow a Frank Zappa phrase) quickly increases, and yet it all sounds so inevitable. Then it's back to another complete treatment of 2a, with a "dying fall" coda. This is the exposition.

The development begins with a crash, with all elements of theme 1 in fugato and hints of theme 2a in the brass. There's a wonderful modulation with scraps of 1a through keys from b-flat to b and a full statement of the first subject in a call-and-response section between strings and winds fortissimo. After this dies down, 2a returns in its fullest form yet (2b is omitted), with another "dying fall" coda, in which 2a melts into wisps. A brass chorale (the first notes of 2a reversed and the rhythm altered) over a descending pizzicato bass (related to 2a) closes the movement. This is not Tchaikovsky singing his neurotic head off, but a master symphonic planner.

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996

Forward to the Second Movement,
back to the Introduction,
or back to Tchaikovsky