Tchaikovsky: Everything you need to know about his symphonies

With each of his six symphonies, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky elevated Russian symphonic music to new heights. Here is a guide to the "Pathétique" symphony and its siblings.

Tchaikovsky: Everything you need to know about his symphonies
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, © Getty / FierceAbin

Tchaikovsky is often criticised for his "sentimentality" and his "pessimism". Without a doubt a tormented composer, he nonetheless became one of the most popular symphony composers of the 19th century. The composers possessed a unique melodic creativity and, far from exacerbated, a pure and authentic lyricism.

His symphonies can be divided into two distinct categories. Deemed inferior in quality in comparison to those that followed, the composer's first three symphonies were forgotten. Though far between, these three works form a cycle centred upon  a theme dear to the composer: fatum, otherwise known as fate. 

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Portrait de Piotr Ilitch Tchaïkovski
Portrait de Piotr Ilitch Tchaïkovski, © Getty / Bettmann

Russia, Ukraine… Symphonies with local colours

Tchaikovsky gave birth to the Russian romantic symphony. This artistic development, however, took its toll on the composer's health, notably during the composition of the Symphony no.1, as stated in a letter to his brother Modeste: "Do you forget  how in the summer of '66 I worked my nerves to pieces  over my First Symphony?".

Interestingly, this was not his first symphonic work. At the age of 26, Tchaikovsky had already composed four Overtures including The Storm, inspired by a work by of the same name by playwright Alexander Ostrovsky.

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Far from hinting at the difficulties of its composition, the Symphony no.1, subtitled "Winter Dreams", is full of levity. When listening to the work, one imagines a flurry of snowflakes surrounding a Nordic landscape. The Russian spirit is clearly identified throughout, as noted by the press at the time. This was not, however, programmatic music, no more than the Symphony no.2.

Nicknamed the "Little Russian", this second opus contains references to the Ukraine where it was started in 1872. The initial Andante resembles a Dumka, a musical genre with dreamy connotations (the word "dumka" literally meaning "thought"). The work closes with a movement inspired by the popular Ukrainian song "the Crane". 

Between two dances!

The Symphony no.3 in D major was composed in record time, between June and August 1875. Beyond the dates, very little is known about the work's origin. It appears to be experimental and somewhat tentative: a rite of passage before a mature period...

The work contains various innovative elements. Most notably, it is made up of five movements and its form is more akin to a suite than a symphony. Each movement is a work in itself, as demonstrated by the use of a waltz for the second movement. It is worth noting that after Berlioz and the "Ball" in his Symphonie Fantastique, Tchaikovsky was the first to create an entire symphonic movement from a waltz. 

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However, the composer was not finished having fun with dances, and the fifth movement draws upon the rhythm of a polonaise dance. It was the conductor Sir August Manns who erroneously attached the subtitle "Polonaise" to this third symphonic attempt, a subtitle that stuck...

When destiny "knocks"…

In many ways, the Symphony no.4 may be considered as the most interesting of the Russian maestro's symphonies. First of the triptych of Tchaikovsky's final symphonies, it introduces the idea of the fatum, the terrible "sword of Damocles". It is needless to point out the link with Beethoven's Symphony no.5, the famous symphony nicknamed "Fate"...

Composed in 1877, it coincides with the start of a long a curious epistolary conversation between Tchaikovsiky and Nadejda von Meck, friend and benefactor whom he would never meet. In a long letter, he explained in detail the programme of his new symphony, to whom he had dedicated the work.

The first movement exposes the theme of the fatum, "the fatal force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realised", followed by an Andantino revealing "another phase of depression [...] the melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when one sits alone, tired from work". After the "capricious arabesques" of the Scherzo depicting "the first stage of intoxication", the final Allegro paints "a picture of festive popular rejoicing". However, the fatum has not had its last laugh and, ever-relentless, it comes to bring the work to a close.

For the first time, Tchaikovsky is surprisingly satisfied with his own work. Ordinarily lacking in confidence, this time he did not hold back! "_I believe it comes into being as the best of my works"..._paradoxical when considering his recently failed marriage.

The Pathétique, a "requiem"?

Ten years later, the fatum motif returned yet again, making its presence felt throughout the Symphony no.5. There is no detailed programme, but the work's structure is obvious for all to see. However, the work's first performances were far from successful, which in turn only deepened the composer's naturally pessimistic mood.

In 1892 he began work on a symphony in E flat major. An enigmatic symphony which would ultimately remain forever a sketch, used later as part of the Piano Concerto no.3. It was now time for the "Pathétique".

If the programme of the Symphony no.5 was mysterious, that of the Symphony no.6 is even more so. It is "profoundly subjective", but that is for the public to find out, wrote Tchaikovksy to his nephew Vladimir Davydov. The final work by the composer, this sixth symphony appears to adopt the characteristics of a "requiem". The premiere took place on 16 October 1893. Tchaikovsky passed away only three weeks later of cholera. Some, however, claim that the composer committed suicide in order to escape any scandals concerning his homosexuality...

The "Pathétique" (whose name was given by Modeste, Piotr's brother) displays a music both painful and elegant. Its finale is not "a loud allegro but quite the opposite, a protracted adagio". The work closes with a slow and mournful melody, similar to that of the opening of the first movement.