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You know I destroyed a symphony I had been composing and just partly orchestrated in the autumn … While on my travels I had the idea for another symphony, this time with a programme, but with a programme that will be an enigma to all—let them guess. The symphony will be entitled A Programme Symphony (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 by the way, the finale will not be a noisy allegro, but on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can’t imagine what bliss I feel, being convinced that my time is not yet passed, and I can still work.
This substitute Sixth Symphony, the one we now know as the ‘Pathétique’, Op 74 was written in January and February 1893 and orchestrated that summer. It also contained a substitute dedication—the Tsar being replaced by ‘Bob’ Davydov, with whom the composer had apparently become infatuated some years previously. The idea of a secret programme and the fact that Tchaikovsky died a little over a week after the symphony’s first performance on 28 October 1893, possibly of cholera, is the point at which all sorts of dubious revelations, half-truths and conspiracy theories take their cue. Was an affair with a teenage scion of the Imperial family discovered and Tchaikovsky offered the choice of ‘Siberia or Suicide’ by the Tsar himself? Was he tried by a secret court of his old colleagues from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in order that the honour of the school be preserved? Did his brother Modest urge him to drink the un-boiled, choleric Saint Petersburg water to save the family’s reputation or were sexual practices with male prostitutes to blame? Did he even die of cholera, given the strictures in place during cholera epidemics at the time and the treatment of Tchaikovsky’s body after death? All of these questions are still routinely squabbled over by experts around the globe.
The fact that the symphony was clearly intended as a valedictory piece by Tchaikovsky does not necessarily make it his requiem or the harbinger of his death any more than a number of elegiac works he composed previously might. In fact, it is clear from his letters of 1893 that he was more often than not in a relatively happy state of mind, writing to friends and colleagues that this symphony was his finest work and of his pride in having composed such a piece. The debate over the symphony and his death rages on and on, and will most likely never find a satisfactory conclusion. R.J. Wiley’s summation of the situation among the yet disagreeing commentators bears a health warning of its own that remains relevant today:
The polemics over his death have reached an impasse … Rumour attached to the famous dies hard: Paganini’s pact with the devil, Salieri’s poison. As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out …
from notes by M Ross © 2010