Tchaikovsky’s Suicide Note?

Today I wanted to share with you Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 6, called “Pathetique” (which translates from Russian as “passionate”). It was Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. He conducted its premier just nine days before his death in 1893. He was 53 years old.

To understand this symphony, we have to understand the dark period in Tchaikovsky’s life.

Tchaikovsky was a master of emotions, because he was a neurotic, highly sensitive person, full of phobias (we know this from his letters). For instance, he had a phobia that his head would fall off when he was conducting. (He eventually overcame this phobia, as at times he had to earn a living as a conductor.) His music is ridden with emotions; it is manifestation of his emotions. It is his emotional confession.

Tchaikovsky wrote “Pathetique” when he was depressed and doubting his ability to compose. (He had destroyed his previous symphony because he was unsatisfied with it.)

Tchaikovsky died from catching cholera by drinking unboiled water, or at least this is the official story. However, there is another very plausible theory, which is that Tchaikovsky committed suicide. His gay relationship with a young nobleman was about to be exposed, which would have brought public shame and destroyed his social status. (Remember this was the homophobic Russia of 120 years ago, which actually is not much different from today’s Russia in this respect).

There is an argument that “Pathetique” is Tchaikovsky’s suicide note. Historians and musical critics are divided on this point. They don’t know, and we will probably never know the truth, but I would like to zoom in on fourth movement of this symphony and let the music help you decide.

The first three movements are gloriously optimistic– there is a waltz; beautiful, lingering melodies; and ballet dances. You don’t need much imagination to see a sunrise, vast Russian landscapes, troikas, and bright white snowfields (Doctor Zhivago-type).

The fourth movement is different. It starts with a cry for help (voiced with the violins). It builds on melancholic, depressive overtones. Tchaikovsky masterfully borrows melodic elements from the first three movements, but these melodies are barely recognizable are as they are painted over with deep sadness. And unlike Tchaikovsky’s other pieces that arrive at a natural finale (you can feel they are about to end), this symphony (like death) ends in nothingness, absolute nothingness – the music just fades out.

Here are performances of the full symphony. I suggest you listen to them first:

  • Herbert Von Karajan

  • Leonard Bernstein

  • Yuri Temirkanov

  • Valery Gergiev

  • Mstislav Rastrapovich (1993 100 year anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death)

And then listen to the fourth movement. We are lucky to have many performances of it.

  • Herbert Von Karajan

  • Leonard Bernstein

  • Yuri Temirkanov

  • Valery Gergiev

 

6 Comments

  1. On this subject, curious readers might seek out Marc Estrin’s imagining of Tchaikovsky’s end of life story, largely told by him lying in his coffin. I’m not endorsing the novel, but Estrin writes very well about classical music.
    Marc Estrin: And Kings Shall Be They Nursing Fathers

  2. Thank you for sending this post today. I’m saddened by the recent suicidal death of a musician from a completely different genre. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many artists take their own lives due to depression/shame or addiction. I don’t know if it’s the nature of a artistic genius or a byproduct of social ills. In either case, it’s tragic to lose people with great talent. Their music is often cathartic reminding us that we’re not alone in our dark moments. Blessed are we who get to enjoy their music long after they’re gone. Thank you for sharing classical music and interesting info about the musicians. Cheers!

  3. I have to say the very first time I heard this piece, it immediately became my favorite piece of music ever. It was 1988. I was 18 years old and I was coming back from New York City.

    I too thought it was a suicide note from hearing it. Then recently, I heard he had to kill himself to save face because he was about to have his sexuality exposed.

    Not sure what to believe now.

    However, I will say that this is still my favorite piece of all-time. I can’t listen to it a lot though. I only listen to it in certain situations because it’s so sad. It’s the saddest piece of music ever written.

    I’m very sure though that his drinking of the choleric water was intentional.

    We will never know the answer though.

  4. Have to agree with everything you said. It is my favorite symphony. It is almost as if the conductor has made a mistake, misplacing the fourth and third movements. I cannot tell you how may times I have seen it performed where people assumed the third movement was the last and even stood up to applaud only to drown out the melodious rapture of the first strains of the last movement. By the way, one small point. “Pathetique” is French and was a mistranslation from a Russian word for passionate “Pateticheskaya”, the former defined as “evoking pity” according to Wikipedia. Anyone who has heard the fourth movement might well think the French translation more appropriate.

  5. I first heard this work as a 14 year old at school. I knew immediately at that moment that I had to write a symphony. I have now written 16 symphonies. Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony really changed my life.

  6. I forgot how much I loved this piece having played it when I was taking piano lessons . I never knew the story . Thank you .

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