After completing his 5th Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891. However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript “in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create.” In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov:
The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.
This work was the Symphony in E-flat, the first movement of which Tchaikovsky later converted into the one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto (his final composition), and the latter two movements of which Sergei Taneyev reworked after Tchaikovsky’s death as the Andante and Finale.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky mentions an entirely new symphonic work in a letter to his brother:
I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on 19 October for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving “in excellent spirits.” However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote, “There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played.”
Tchaikovsky critic Richard Taruskin writes, “Suicide theories were much stimulated by the Sixth Symphony, which was first performed under the composer’s baton only nine days before his demise, with its lugubrious finale (ending morendo, ‘dying away’), its brief but conspicuous allusion to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement and above all its easily misread subtitle. . . . When the symphony was done again a couple of weeks later, in memoriam and with subtitle in place, everyone listened hard for portents, and that is how the symphony became a transparent suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. ‘Homosexual tragedy’ came later.” Yet critic David Brown describes the idea of the Sixth Symphony as some sort of suicide note as “patent nonsense”. Says critic Alexander Poznansky, “Since the arrival of the ‘court of honour’ theory in the West, performances of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony are almost invariably accompanied by annotations treating it as a testimony of homosexual martyrdom.” Other scholars, including Michael Paul Smith, believe that with or without the supposed ‘court of honour’ sentence, there is no way that Tchaikovsky could have known the time of his own death while composing his last masterpiece.
It has been claimed that Soviet orchestras, faced with the problem of an enormously popular yet profoundly pessimistic piece, switched the order of the last two movements in order to bring the work to a triumphant conclusion in line with the principles of Socialist realism.
The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means “passionate” or “emotional,” not “arousing pity,” but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. Tchaikovsky considered calling it Программная (Programmnaya or “Program Symphony”) but realized that would encourage curiosity about the program, which he did not want to reveal. According to his brother Modest, he suggested the Патетическая title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title.
Tchaikovsky’s “Cross”-motive, associated with the crucifixion, himself, and Tristan, a variation of which first appears in mm.1-2 of his Pathétique Symphony About this sound Play (help·info). Tchaikovsky identified with and associated the cross-motif with “star-cross’d lovers” in general, such as in Romeo and Juliet.
Tchaikovsky dedicated the Pathétique to his nephew, Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, whom he greatly admired.
The Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.
A suggested program has been what Taruskin disparagingly termed “symphony as suicide note.” This idea began to assert itself as early as the second performance of the symphony in Saint Petersburg, not long after the composer had died. People at that performance “listened hard for portents. As always, they found what they were looking for: a brief but conspicuous quotation from the Russian Orthodox requiem at the stormy climax of the first movement, and of course the unconventional Adagio finale with its tense harmonies at the onset and its touching depiction of the dying of the light in conclusion”. Countering this is Tchaikovsky’s statement on 26 September/8 October 1893 that he was in no mood to write any sort of requiem. This was in reply to a suggestion from his close friend Grand Duke Konstantin that he write a requiem for their mutual friend the writer Aleksey Apukhtin, who had died in late August, just as Tchaikovsky was completing the Pathétique.
Tchaikovsky specialist David Brown suggests that the symphony deals with the power of Fate in life and death. This program would not only be similar to those suggested for the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but also parallels a program suggested by Tchaikovsky for his unfinished Symphony in E flat. That program reads, “The ultimate essence … of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”