When Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky stepped onto the stage in Saint Petersburg on 28 October 1893 to introduce his Sixth Symphony to the public, he was received with a roar of applause. Less than an hour later the astonished audience was left dumbfounded. How could a symphony begin so softly and end even softer? And what about the second movement, with its undanceable waltz, and the third one with its unstoppable march? Nine days after the premiere, Tchaikovsky died in a city ravaged by cholera. Tchaikovsky himself considered the symphony to be the best he had ever written, and with it he said farewell to music, indeed to life itself. Rumours have never ceased to circulate about this unexpected end. For example, according to a controversial theory of the Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova, the composer was forced to commit suicide. A secret council of honour is said to have sentenced Tchaikovsky thus because of a scandalous relationship with his young nephew; that he was reported to have died of cholera was no more than a pretence to conceal the true course of events. This theory has since been refuted. When the composer drunk a glass of unboiled water in the company of his brother Modest and nephew Vladimir Davidov, who warned him of the dangers, he replied “I am not afraid of cholera.” Did he know what he was doing? Is this the import of the dark, deathly sound of the menacing bassoons at the beginning of the symphony? Was the Pathétique indeed his message of farewell? And especially the final movement, Adagio, with its downward pull, in which all that holds on to life is swallowed up as if by a morass? Depressions overshadowed not only Tchaikovsky’s final years, but much of his life as well. Among the reasons for this was his homosexuality. In his younger years he was very nearly driven to suicide by an unhappy marriage, which was dissolved on medical advice. In his last symphony, the tragedy of the composer’s life seems to be captured in music.Download booklet
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