A symphony before dying

Critic's Choice : Classical Music

June 11, 2000|By Tim Smith

When Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, the one nicknamed "Pathetique," was first heard on Oct. 16, 1893, the St. Petersburg audience had mixed reactions. The slow, somber conclusion of the work, in particular, caused some puzzlement. But when, eight days later, the composer died, the "Pathetique" suddenly took on new significance. It was now considered a profound swan-song, a requiem for Tchaikovsky himself.

And then the conspiracy theories started. Surely, a composer who could write such sad music just before dying must have had either a premonition of his demise or, better yet, a wish to die. That's why he deliberately drank a glass of unboiled water at a restaurant, even though he knew there was a cholera scare in town!

But wait! Bodies of cholera victims were typically covered up and buried quickly, yet Tchaikovsky's was left exposed, and mourners even kissed the mouth. The cholera story had to be a cover-up of the real cause! In truth, Tchaikovsky was forced to commit suicide by taking poison, rather than face disgrace over a homosexual affair!

Talk about pathetic. Although that last tale wound up receiving an imprimatur from no less than the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the bible of musical scholarship, in 1980, there has been a lot of legend-debunking since then. The second edition of the New Grove, due to be released in November, will replace the forced-suicide story with a much safer conclusion: No one knows for sure all the details surrounding Tchaikovsky's premature death.

Still, some folks will always hear a troubled and tragic soul crying behind the notes of the "Pathetique" hurling himself toward death. Even without such interpretations, the score remains a powerhouse of emotion and unforgettable melody. It will be interesting to hear what Yuri Temirkanov makes of the "Pathetique" when he conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in three performances of it this week.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston Streets. For tickets, call 410-783-8131.

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