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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

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

Second Movement

This is altogether a much simpler movement than the first. Akin to a Brahms symphonic intermezzo, its only really unusual feature is its time signature – a 5/4 (5 beats to the measure). Most standard rep works have some multiple of 2 or 3 beats to a measure. Tchaikovsky's 5/4 is broken up into 2+3 beats per measure. Despite the time signature, the themes are gathered into regular groups of eight, a highly symmetrical grouping. The main plan of the movement is first group-trio-first group-coda.

The first theme, in D, also despite the time signature, always sounds to me like a typical Tchaikovskian waltz (see the "Waltz of the Flowers" from the Nutcracker) with one beat missing, particularly in the gorgeously full scoring. It's essentially an upward scalar fragment, with a little triplet "hiccup" in the middle, joined to the same idea a step higher, and finished with the idea in reverse (a downward scalar fragment with the hiccup) repeated. This whole group is repeated. Tchaikovsky continues with a new idea, but maintains the same rhythm. He repeats the new idea and then moves back to the first theme.

The trio in B minor (technically, the "relative minor" of D Major) occurs over a mediant pedal – that is, a pedal on the minor third (mi, of do-re-mi) of the scale. A pedal point, or pedal for short, is the continuous sounding of a single pitch, usually the fifth degree of the scale (sol) or the first degree (do). The theme itself is mostly a downward scalar fragment, nothing special, but Tchaikovsky does some very simple and effective changes as it progresses, mainly altering how it ends. The pedal on the third is a bit unusual. I can think of it right now only in one other place: the scherzo of Schumann's "Rhenish" symphony. Schumann, of course, influenced the Russians. It happens that this pedal on the third is also the tonic note of the main key, so getting back to the home key shouldn't be a problem. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky indulges in some pretty fancy modulations to distant keys which I won't describe technically but which you hear easily enough. Still, we reach the main key of D Major by the trio's end.

The first group sounds again. There is a short coda, in which the first theme (minus the hiccup) appears in the bass, while fragments of the trio sound in the upper parts. To be simplistic, this is essentially the simultaneous juxtaposition of upward and downward scales, not much in themselves. Kids do the same thing on the piano – left hand going up the C Major scale, right hand going down – after they get tired of "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul." Still, Tchaikovsky handles this very simple idea with great sophistication.

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996

Forward to the Third Movement
back to the First Movement
back to the Introduction
or back to Tchaikovsky