Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #2 Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74

Coming in second place on my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with his final symphony, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74. This symphony is an outstanding composition with each movement playing a very important part in the expression of the whole work of art. It is full of the gorgeous Tchaikovsky melodies while also doing what few other compositions have done, expressing deep despair and agony, showing that, in life, a person can feel both joyous happiness and darkest anguish and that it is okay to do so. Tchaikovsky added the moniker “Pateticheskaya” (the Romanized Russian version) which in French was translated “Pathétique”. There are slight differences in the languages because in the original Russian, the meaning was “passionate” or “emotional”, not “arousing pity or sympathy”. 

In 1893 Tchaikovsky felt like his time was running short in this life and wanted to create at least one last truly inspiring piece before he departed. He started on one symphony but did not feel it was up to par and cast it aside, later coming back to it as his third piano concerto. He then was inspired with what we now see as his Sixth Symphony. He wrote to a friend (from http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Symphony_No._6): 

“You know I destroyed a symphony I had been composing and only partly orchestrated in the autumn [2]… During my journey I had the idea for another symphony, this time with a programme, but such a programme that will remain an enigma to everyone—let them guess; the symphony shall be entitled: A Programme Symphony (No. 6); Symphonie à Programme (No. 6); Programm-Symphonie (No. 6). The programme itself will be suffused with subjectivity, and not infrequently during my travels, while composing it in my head, I wept a great deal. Upon my return I sat down to write the sketches, and the work went so furiously and quickly that in less than four days the first movement was completely ready, and the remaining movements already clearly outlined in my head. The third movement is already half-done. The form of this symphony will have much that is new, and amongst other things, the finale will not be a noisy allegro, but on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can’t imagine how blissful I feel in the conviction that my time is not yet passed, and to work is still possible. Of course I might be mistaken, but I don’t think so”

It is reassuring to me when a composer really loves the work he or she created. In August 1893, he wrote to the same friend that the symphony was “…coming along. I’m very pleased with its content, but dissatisfied, or rather not completely satisfied, with the instrumentation. For some reason it’s not coming out as I intended. To me it would be typical and unsurprising if this symphony were torn to pieces or little appreciated, for it wouldn’t be for the first time that had happened. But I absolutely consider it to be the best, and in particular, the most sincere of all my creations. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical offspring”. 

He later wrote this: “My work is going very well, but I can’t write as quickly as before; but not because I’m becoming feeble through old age, rather because I’m being much stricter with myself, and don’t have my former self-confidence. I am very proud of my symphony, and think that it’s my best composition” and this: “I think it will be successful; it is rare for me to write anything with such love and enthralment”. “I can honestly say that never in my life have I been so pleased with myself, so proud, or felt so fortunate to have created something as good as this”

And what a fantastic piece of music Tchaikovsky created! Each of the four movements is distinct, unique, yet a part of the same narrative structure he tries to convey. The first movement is the longest, at nearly 20 minutes. It is in sonata form with a very dour beginning, slow, low foghorn bassoons rolling about. The strings come in two minutes later to announce the gorgeous primary theme in B minor. It rises in tension to a full explosion of the orchestra which leads to the soft, gorgeous secondary theme in D major, a beautiful lullaby, similar in style to the love theme from his Romeo and Juliet Overture. With similar deft as in the Overture, Tchaikovsky draws out a host of treasure from this magnificent theme. It then dissipates to a soft whisper…

BOOM! The development section smashes in your face while it brings back the violent first theme with its wailing anguish, and Tchaikovsky shows what he has learned over the years to develop themes and draw out the best, most fitting possibilities with a theme. Where it really stands out is about 13:30, depending on the recording, where he slows the primary theme down to these gigantic chords, brass and strings wailing in pain and the timpani pedaling and rolling in waves of pain. The good recording gives these massive chords time to sink in to your psyche. This eventually leads back to the recapitulation and the conclusion of a magnificent first movement. It ends on a happy note, which, given the amount of anguish expressed, might feel it should be the other way. But one important point to note about the expression of anguish, there is a release and a relief that comes from the expression. Which is also why the second movement coming up is so damn perfect as a follow up. 

The second movement is a large form ABA in a 5/4 time signature. It is in a dance format with repeating melodies. It reminds me a lot of the second movement from the Serenade for Strings, but just so much more expansive written here for full orchestra. This movement is an example of the kind of gorgeous music I wish to compose for full orchestra. It’s so beautiful. The middle B section reminds people it is okay to cry about the pain you feel, even when you’re surrounded by happiness. It’s okay to feel the sadness and to let go of your emotions, to let them pour down your face. The 5/4 time signature is excellently used alternating between when it is a 3/2 emphasis and when it is a 2/3 emphasis. The main theme is in a 2/3 beat while the B section is in 3/2. The movement ends with a coda, coming across again, as conveying that it is okay to be expressive and passionate, to let anguish, happiness, joy, sadness, all of them to come out. 

The third movement is not a scherzo nor an Adagio but rather a full Allegro molto vivace with a compound meter of 12/8 and 4/4. The main theme of the Allegro is not expressed until near the end. It’s another one of the unique quirks of this third movement. It does not start with the main theme at all but rather what feels like background music. He’s using this with bare fragments of the main theme and then slowly adding to the main theme every few minutes. What’s great about this way of composing the piece is that it keeps building in happy explosive sound and at each point you think you’ve reached the top, but there is still more until the full orchestra plays the primary theme with about two or so minutes left in the movement. The movement concludes like all good symphonies conclude their fourth, or final movement, with the full orchestra at full blast with a good old V – I conclusion. And you think the symphony is done. But this is just the third movement. 

Tchaikovsky wanted to create a symphony about passion, about emotion. He wanted to express the idea that it is good to be fully expressive, even in the most abject and final condition. The fourth movement is a slow movement with anguish and death the main topics. It is especially clear when the trumpets come in with close together muted notes, and then the symphony fades away, toward death.  A good recording also gives the music the time needed to stretch the large chords of death. 

So speaking of recordings, for all of these last top 4 compositions, recording makes a big difference. I really love what Theodor Currentzis has done with his Musica Aeterna group of musicians. Their recording is clear, crisp, just the right balance of volume with hearing each distinctive instrument. I highly recommend their version of this symphony. No doubt there are others that are quite great, but this is the one I recommend. 

#02 – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74

#03 – Wagner Götterdammerung

#04 – Gershwin An American in Paris

#05 – Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

#06 – Dvorak Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95

#07 – Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

#08 – Ellington Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

#09 – Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade, Op. 35

#10 – Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture

#11 – Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22

#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps

#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551

#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things

#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527

#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97

#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20 

#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor

#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Wolfe Fire in my Mouth

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Glass Anthem, Pt. 2

Weber Der Freischütz

Coleman Lonely Woman

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker

Jobim Girl From Ipanema

Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra

Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944

Saariaho L’Amour de Loin

Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”

Desmond Take Five

Wagner Die Walküre 

Puccini Tosca

Davis So What

Stravinsky Petroushka 

Wagner Tristan Und Isolde

Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

Verdi Aïda

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

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