After finishing The Nutcracker, Pyotr Tchaikovsky set to work on what would become his famous Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique.” At the age of 53, the Russian composer had gained European fame and legendary status. Prior to beginning work on his masterpiece, Tchaikovsky traveled widely. The composer returned to his home in Klin, however, in order to work on the symphony as well as a third piano concerto (Op. 75) and eighteen piano pieces (Op. 72). Tchaikovsky’s accomplishments, fame, and work could not alleviate Tchaikovsky’s state of depression at this time, though.
His Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique” demonstrates the complexities of his personal life, but does so in a calm and mysterious way. The symphony, especially movement III, portrays the difficulties of Tchaikovksy’s life and his inner troubles. It is almost a plea for people to recognize his pain.
Even though he was a busy man working on several compositions around this time, Tchaikovsky led the first performance of his Symphony No. 6 on October 16, 1893. Nine days later, the composer died. The official explanation was that he suffered from cholera due to drinking a glass of unfiltered water while dining at a restaurant.
The end of Tchaikovsky’s life remains mysterious and controversial. Scholars debate whether the famous composer died due to cholera or an act of suicide. The latter hypothesis derives from Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation. As a supposed homosexual, the musician may have been influenced by his native country to kill himself. The government did not embrace homosexuality, and many fear Tchaikovsky was pressured into thoughts of suicide after rumors emerged about his relationship with the nephew of a powerful noble.
Tchaikovsky’s music — including Symphony No. 6 and earlier works like The Nutcracker and Eugene Onegin — not only shows the inner turmoil he experienced during his life, but furthermore likely provided a primary outlet as well as a source of solace.
The third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 can be heard here:
Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life
Part 2: Eugene Onegin
Part 3: The Nutcracker
Part 4: Symphony No. 6