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Charles Hazlewood on... The Pathetique

Updated Tuesday 23rd January 2007

The conductor Charles Hazlewood explores the sense of peace in Tchaikovsky's last major work.

Copyright The Open University
Copyright The Open University

The first and most important thing to stress about the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique, you might well think, and you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit odd just to do the first movement because, after all, aren’t there four in a symphony? Well indeed there are four, but the fact is that there’s a very specific reason why we’re choosing just to dwell on the first.

Partly because in the constraints of the time available in the programme we can really, really get our hands dirty, we can really delve deep down into the fundamentals of this music. But also, beyond that, much more importantly, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony sort of pulls together all the conflicts, all the dialogues that he had with himself about symphonic development.

If you like, in the Fourth Symphony, which you may know, that has a huge first movement, just like the Sixth does, and what the Fourth Symphony first movement does is it kind of sets up, throws up a load of questions about how a symphonic structure, symphonic argument in terms of a full four movement work might actually operate. After all, if you look back at the great classical model, the Mozart symphony and the Haydn symphony, you’ve got four movements which are essentially, broadly speaking, quite well balanced. You know, they’re contrasting, but in terms of duration and in terms of the thematic overthrow they all link to each other and they’re four quarters of a whole.

By the time of Tchaikovsky, particularly with Tchaikovsky, he was so interested in bending form, partly because he was Russian and Russians do that, they’re not so hide-bound by classical convention as some of the German romantic artists were, but this sense that why not create a first movement which could and should, in a way, be viewed as a complete work of art in itself but, actually, you can listen to the first symphony, the first movement of the Sixth Symphony and, indeed, you can play it and not need to have any reference forward to any of the other three movements. It is a perfect - well it’s not a miniature, it’s much bigger than that, it’s a perfect entity in itself.

Now, what you get is, interestingly, an introduction which is one of the very darkest, indeed blackest, introductions of any piece of music I can think of from anywhere in the world written at any point in time. Absolutely dark, dark, dark, just this open fifth in very low double basses. And after what seems like an eternity of that just sitting there like a drone, this bassoon just rises out of the mire and plays the most kind of plaintive but dark and throaty solo. The violas then join and we arrive at a junction point, then there’s silence. Tchaikovsky does silence so well. Then he repeats exactly the same thing again, and we realise that we’re already being dragged, sucked along on some kind of extraordinary journey, of which and about which we have no understanding and, perhaps more importantly, no control.

Now, when the first subject, the first proper theme comes you realise immediately you’ve already been given the fundamental DNA of it in that very dark opening that the bassoon has, something which Tchaikovsky does so well, the sense of already given you some of the DNA of the theme before he actually presents the theme to you. So you get this very warm shiver up the back of, or up your spine, or at least I do, which says it’s déjà vu here, I’ve heard or I’ve experienced something of this already even though I can’t necessarily, at that point in time on the first hearing, put my finger on what it is.So, then the piece sort of builds up and it builds up and it builds up from this very dark opening, taking the idea forward, making it into a first subject proper, [sings] de-ah-bup-bwar-dom, yuba-duba-dah. There’s something kind of frenetic and energetic about it but, at the same time, something very tired.

Remember this is basically the last great work Tchaikovsky wrote. He conducted its premiere, nine days later he was dead. So even though at the time, I don’t believe that he knew he was dying, there is still some sense of this piece of being a postlude, even like a kind of epitaph to Tchaikovsky’s life. As I say, he’s, in his first movement, solved all the problems which he’d set up for himself or he’s thrown open as question marks in earlier symphonic work, and he sort of solved things here. But also he’s curiously at peace, so there’s a weariness to it. There’s also a kind of strange frisson of energy which goes against the weariness and creates a nice kind of, you know, uncomfortable dynamic.

But then, you see, you get in the second subject this absolutely exquisite, exquisite falling figure which falls and then rises again and then falls. Basically, it is music of the dying fall and, particularly in the last part of Tchaikovsky’s life and career, again and again he wrote melodies which absolutely have this dying fall quality to them. It’s basically the idea of a falling figure in music for Tchaikovsky was synonymous with his concept of fate which is something he was obsessed with and, obviously, by the time of the Sixth symphony, whether he knew that he was shortly to die or not, there is a sense that fate is inexorably dragging him down into blackness. There’s a sense that if you’ve ever perhaps known someone who has clinical depression, or perhaps you suffer from it yourself, at that point when someone goes into that deeply black place where no other person, however hard they try, can reach them, and all that person wants is in that deeply black space is to just be left there and ideally for the blackness to become eternal, and in a way that’s what this music is begging for. But also perhaps the music is articulated that he’s already somehow arrived at some sense of peace after what had been the most turbulent life of crises within and without himself.

So, you’ve got these two contrasting themes; the one which has come out of the blackness, and then this almost ecstatic sense of release and abandon to his fate, to the end perhaps, to some kind of closure. And those are essentially the enormous elements that make up this work.


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