In St. Petersburg on today’s date in 1893, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance of his latest Symphony, his Sixth. From the beginning, this symphony has been commonly known by its French subtitle, the “Pathétique,” a designation suggested by the composer’s brother, Modest.
Now, by “Pathetique” Modest meant something like “passionate” or “emotional,” with overtones of “pathos” and “suffering,” but in plain old English, “pathétique” translates as “pathetic,” a word with a slew of negative connotations. The French sounds MUCH better, thank you. Tchaikovsky himself had originally wanted to call it “A Program Symphony” with, apparently, no intention of cluing anyone in on what that program might be.
In any case, nine days after he conducted the premiere, Tchaikovsky was dead. Was his death the result of a fatal glass of unboiled water recklessly drunk during the height of a cholera epidemic? Or was it a deliberate suicide to avoid the scandal of a homosexual affair becoming public? Did his “Pathétique” Symphony encode the answer?
Speculation has raged around Tchaikovsky’s last symphony ever since, surrounding this last work with what one critic as called “voluptuous gloom.”