Tchaikovsky 101, Part 4 of 4: Symphony No. 6

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 161893. 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:

Tchiakovsky 101:

Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life

Part 2: Eugene Onegin

Part 3: The Nutcracker

Part 4: Symphony No. 6


Tchaikovsky 101, Part 3 of 4: The Nutcracker

Tchaikovsky, while he showed a darker side through his composition of Eugene Onegin, expressed himself differently in a later work. His composition of The Nutcracker, Op. 71 demonstrates his capability to use his personal struggles to create breathtaking music.

Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose an opera to be produced simultaneously with a two-act ballet. Iolanta, the opera that resulted from this commission, ended up being completed before the ballet. The Nutcracker was delayed further because of Tchaikovsky’s conducting engagements at the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City.

When it came time for Tchaikovsky to begin work on The Nutcracker, it was shortly after his sister passed away. Tchaikovsky became immersed in the ballet. He found solace in the character of Clara, who he saw as a parallel for his sister Sasha. Just like Eugene Onegin (discussed in last week’s blog of our four-part series on the Russian composer), Tchaikovsky found comfort in music during a difficult time in his life.

An interesting side note comes from an old rumor. It is believed that Tchaikovsky argued with a friend who speculated that the composer was incapable of writing a melody based on the notes of the octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky, after being assured it did not matter if the notes needed to be in ascending or descending order, wrote what would become the “Grand Adage” from the Grand Pas de Deux of Act Two. This is the scene where Clara dances with the Nutcracker Prince. The score of The Nutcracker is also noteworthy because it contains the use of the celesta. This was one of the first times the instrument was prominently used in a major music score.

The Nutcracker premiered a week before Christmas in 1892, just two years before Tchaikovsky’s death, and was not met with success. Tchaikovsky’s work contains many surprises, though. It shows both the ingenuity of the composer as well as his emotional state at the time — and despite its initial reception, The Nutcracker has grown to become among the most famous and beloved ballets today.

A listen to perhaps one of the most famous ballet excerpts, the “Waltz of Flowers,” shows the composer’s sensitivity:

Next week: We conclude our four-part series on Tchaikovsky with a look at his most famous work, Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74,Pathétique.” The last work premiered before the composer’s unfortunate death, and it is considered one of his greatest.

Tchiakovsky 101:

Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life

Part 2: Eugene Onegin

Part 3: The Nutcracker

Part 4: Symphony No. 6



Tchaikovsky 101, Part 2 of 4: Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin, one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous operas, was first completed in 1878 and premiered a year later in Moscow in 1879. During this period, Tchaikovsky had vacationed in Brailov, which is now a city in the modern Ukraine. He returned to Moscow late in 1878 and upon resuming his professorship at the Conservatoire, he resigned, finding the situation there unbearable.

At this time, the composer went through a personal crisis that related to the death of his beloved mother. According to scholars, the period during which Eugene Onegin was written was a turbulent time for Tchaikovsky. A letter written by the composer describing his anguish is often cited. He wrote of how he would never be able to reconcile the death of his mother, and that without music he would have “gone mad.”

Tchaikovsky's mother

Tchaikovsky’s mother

His mental state during this time brings the opera itself into clear focus. A dark drama, the opera carries with it beautiful music showing how Tchaikovsky expressed himself through writing. Furthermore, the opera also represents a change in Tchaikovsky’s music around the time. His prior operas prior reflected a nationalistic tone. After the first act of Eugene Onegin, however, this theme disappears almost completely.

The sudden change could be a result of his mental state or a desire to move on from his past as depression and confusion were beginning to take their toll on him. But according to his letters, Tchaikovsky felt a small joy in writing Eugene Onegin. He viewed music as a cure and a salvation. The opera allowed Tchaikovsky to temporarily free his mind from the torment of his mother’s death twenty-three years earlier.


Next week: In part 3 of Tchaikovsky 101, we will examine The Nutcracker, one of the most famous ballets. What was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration behind the ballet? What was his life like around that time? Stay tuned for the next part of this look into the life of the famous Russian composer.

Last Week: Tchaikovsky 101, Part 1: A Brief Look at Tchaikovsky’s Life


Tchiakovsky 101:

Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life

Part 2: Eugene Onegin

Part 3: The Nutcracker

Part 4: Symphony No. 6


Tchaikovsky 101, Part 1 of 4

 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Born in 1840 in the Ural Mountain town of Votkinsk, Russian Empire, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the second of six children. From his early years he showed a different quality than his siblings. He maintained an unusual charm and sensitiveness, which caused a sense of vulnerability.

Musically, his talents became apparent during these formative years. When he was eight years old, he was known to reproduce on the piano arias from W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni that he had heard from an orchestration of the work. He became passionate about music, but his family, particularly his father Ilya Petrovich, did not believe music represented a respectful profession. Petrovich, went so far as to enroll his son in boarding-school in Saint Petersburg when they moved there following his Governmental appointment as a mine manager.

It is believed that the young Tchaikovsky, having received tender caring by his family, was treated more sternly by his teachers. This treatment supposedly created the low spirit that pervaded the composer throughout his life.[1]

Tchaikovsky's home

Tchaikovsky’s home in Klin, Russia, where he wrote his 6th Symphony and lived until his death in 1893. The home is now the Tchaikovsky Museum.

After his boarding-school education, his parents placed him in School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg. Soon thereafter, Peter’s mother passed away suddenly from a cholera attack. The event traumatized the young Peter. He responded to her death by attempting his first musical composition in her honor. The early portion of Peter’s life provides a glimpse into his later musical works. His melodies reflect his depression and pessimism that remained evident throughout his life.

An outwardly shy and reserved individual, Tchaikovsky became capable of strong inner strength and maintained a powerful conviction to compose masterful music.[2] He most likely would have provided a psychologist with a rather compelling subject and his distraught nature is reflected throughout his music.


Next week: In part 2 of Tchaikovsky 101, we will examine the opera Eugene Onegin and the turbulent stage of Tchaikovsky’s life that surrounded the work. The composer’s mental state around the time reflects a change in the opera’s tone compared to his earlier operas. Eugene Onegin represented a desire to escape from his depression.


[1] Alexander Poznansky. “Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man” (New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1991), 3-17.

[2] Edwin Evans. Tchaikovsky (London: Temple Press, 1935), 53.


Tchiakovsky 101:

Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life

Part 2: Eugene Onegin

Part 3: The Nutcracker

Part 4: Symphony No. 6