Notes: Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique"

This evening’s performance features music by two 20th-century Eastern European composers, as well as one of the greatest of all Romantic-era symphonies. Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre shows the influence of Béla Bartók, whose Third Piano Concerto we’ll hear. Following intermission, get out your hankies for Tchaikovsky’s deeply affecting Symphony “Pathetiqué.”

Musique funèbre

Witold Lutosławski
(Born 25 January 1913 in Warsaw, Poland; Died 7 February 1994 in Warsaw)

Composed: 1958

Premiere: March 1958; Katowice, Poland

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: strings

Approximate Duration: 14 minutes

The Polish composer and conductor Witold Lutosławski was one of the most important European composers of the second half of the 20th century. As a conductor, he often led performances and recordings of his own music. At the same time, he lectured at some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions and received several honorary doctorates – from the universities of Cambridge, Chicago, and Warsaw, among others. His compositions include works written especially for baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Kristian Zimmerman, and oboist Heinz Holliger.

Lutosławski’s earliest works, from the late 1930s, display a folk-like quality in which diatonic melodies are harmonized with chords that lack functional relationships—not unlike the music of Bartók. A decade later, he strove to create a new, integrated tonality. Musique funèbre (Funeral Music or, in Polish, Muzyka źalobna), composed in 1958, is often cited as a turning point in—and paradigm of—Lutosławski’s development of a new harmonic system. It displays a kinship to 12-tone music, but a particular chord is granted pride of place. Commentators have noted that its overall shape shows the influence of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936).

In his program notes for the piece, Lutosławski wrote: “This work for strings is dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartók. Musique funèbre is a one-movement work made up of four linked sections: Prologue, Metamorphosis, Apogeum, and Epilogue. The first is constructed in the form of alternating canons based on a 12-tone row based exclusively on tritones and minor seconds. The Metamorphosis builds up to a violent presto, while the Apogeum, the center of the work, leads to a central unison by contraction of the pitches used. The final Epilogue begins fortissimo, after which the canons reappear until only a solo cello remains.”

Recommended Recording: Dennis Russell Davies, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (ECM New Series)


Piano Concerto No. 3

Béla Bartók
(Born 25 March 1881 in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania); Died 26 September 1945 in New York City, New York)

Composed: 1945

Premiere: February 8, 1946; Philadelphia

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), strings

Approximate Duration: 23 minutes

Bartók’s third piano concerto, along with the uncompleted viola concerto, was one of the master’s last compositions. It dates from 1945, his final year, when he was living in America and suffering from the polycythemia that would eventually take his life. Bartók intended the work as a gift for his wife—the gifted pianist Ditta Pásztory—on her 42nd birthday, but died on 26 September 1945 with the concerto unfinished. The composer’s friend Tibor Serly completed the orchestration of the final 17 measures, drawing from Bartók’s notes. The work was premiered in Philadelphia by the Hungarian pianist György Sandor, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, on 8 February 1946.

“Cast in a clear Mozartian mold” and “unique in Bartók’s output” (Vera Lampert), the Third Concerto opens with a simple melody that conveys a distinctly Hungarian tone, a characteristic it shares with the Second Violin Concerto (1937–38). A clear texture pervades Bartók’s writing, despite passages of great verve and animation, and the movement ends with brief but affecting exchange between flute and piano. The serene second movement, marked Adagio religioso, contains a quotation from the “heiliger Dankgegang” (Holy Hymn of Thanks) from Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. The strings begin as in Beethoven; the piano dialogues with eloquent chords. This is expressive music of the highest order. The middle section evokes night music—a genre beloved by Bartók—as the piano, oboe, clarinet, and flute exchange bird calls over string tremolos. The chorale returns as the piano offers rhapsodic commentary. The Finale is replete with virtuosic fugal passages, but even in the most complex counterpoint, its energy is infectious. The master’s shorthand instructions were all Serly needed to complete this singular work of art.

Recommended Recording: Géza Anda; Ferenc Fricsay, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(Born 7 May 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia; Died 6 November 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia)

Composed: 1893

Premiere: October 28, 1893; Saint Petersburg

Last MSO Performance: April 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam tam), strings

Approximate Duration: 46 minutes

Tchaikovsky penned his Sixth Symphony between 6 February and 31 August 1893. The work was given its first performance on 28 October of that year. The composer died nine days later; it is believed he committed suicide by ingesting arsenic.

The Sixth Symphony is Tchaikovsky’s final musical utterance, one saturated with pessimism and despair. His range of expression is enormous, and the dynamics stretch from to ppppp to ffff. The first subject rises from the murky depths of the introduction. The low bassoon solo over muddy strings sounds like the beginning of Creation itself—primordial ooze coming slowly and poignantly to life. This somber tone is sustained throughout the first movement. The soaring principal theme, lovingly introduced by muted violins and cellos, is richly and expansively developed. Though the second movement’s 5/4 “waltz” is, of necessity, more relaxed, it never quite loses the overall effect of melancholy—a dance for the heavy of heart, perhaps. Its contrasting trio, played over a pedal-point on D, is marked con dolcezza e flebile.

The Allegro molto vivace march is an orchestral tour de force, calling for dazzling virtuosity and rhythmic precision. It is a striking antipode to the symphony’s final cry of despair, the Adagio lamentoso. Here, two descending melodic ideas are supported by plaintive harmonies. Tchaikovsky places the anguished climax in the middle of the movement, rather than at the end. A single soft stroke of the gong marks the point of no return, and the music slowly fades into silence as the cellos and basses have the last mournful word, retreating into the dark underworld in which the whole symphony began.

Recommended Recording: Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.