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Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6

October 11, 2023

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6

Featured Artists

Peter Oundjian, conductor
Jason Shafer, clarinet

Program Dates

Friday, November 3, 2023 at 7:30PM
Saturday, November 4, 2023 at 7:30PM
Sunday, November 5 at 1:00PM


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84

JOHN CORIGLIANO Clarinet Concerto

  1. Cadenzas
  2. Elegy
  3. Antiphonal Toccata

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

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro con grazia
  3. Allegro molto vivace
  4. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-11827), Overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, and died March 26, 1827 in Vienna. He composed the incidental music to Goethe’s drama Egmont of 1787 between October 1809 and June 1810; the Overture was the last of the nine pieces to be written. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is about 9 minutes.


“The first casualty when war comes,” observed Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, “is truth.” So when Napoleon invaded Vienna in May 1809, convinced that the Austrian Empire was the major stumbling-block to his domination of Europe, it is not surprising that censorship of literature, of the press, and of the theater were instituted immediately. The months until the French departed in October were bitter ones for the Viennese. The value of the national currency dwindled, food was in short supply, and freedoms were limited. Soon after the first of the year, with Napoleon’s forces gone, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for the production of a series of revivals of the dramas of Schiller and Goethe, the great figures of the German stage. Appropriately, two plays that he chose dealt with the oppression of a noble people by a foreign tyrant, and of the eventual freedom the patriots won for themselves — Schiller’s William Tell and Goethe’s Egmont.

Beethoven was commissioned to write the music for Goethe’s 1789 play. (Adalbert Gyrowetz was assigned William Tell. Rossini’s setting of the tale was still two decades in the future.) Egmont, based on an incident from 1567, depicts the subjugation of the Netherlands to the tyrannical Spanish rulers, the agony of the people, and their growing defiance and dreams of liberty, and ends with Count Egmont’s call for revolution and his vision of eventual victory in the moments before his execution. Beethoven approached his task with zeal, out of both his unmitigated respect for the author and his humanist’s belief in the freedom and dignity of man.

The theme of political oppression overthrown in the name of freedom was also treated by Beethoven in his only opera, Fidelio, and the musical process employed there also served well for Egmont. The triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, is portrayed through the overall structure of the work: major tonalities replace minor at the moment of victory; bright orchestral sonorities succeed somber, threatening ones; fanfares displace sinuous melodies. Devoid of overtly dramatic trappings, it is the same emotional road he travelled in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. The incidental music to Egmont mirrors the plight of the Dutch people and their determination to be free, finishing with a Siegessymphonie, a “Symphony of Victory.” The Overture compresses the action of the play into a single musical span. A stark unison begins the introduction. Twice, stern chords from the strings are answered by the lyrical plaints of the woodwinds. An uneasy hush comes over the last measures of this solemn opening. The main body of the Overture commences with an ominous melody in the cellos. A storm quickly gathers (note the timpani strokes), but clears to allow the appearance of the contrasting second theme, a quicker version of the material from the introduction. The threatening mood returns to carry the music through its developmental central section and into the recapitulation. The second theme is extended to include passages cloaked in the burnished sound of horns and winds. A falling, unison fourth followed by a silence marks the moment of Egmont’s death. Organ-like chords from the winds sustain the moment of suspense. Then, beginning almost imperceptibly but growing with an exhilarating rapidity, the stirring song of victory is proclaimed by the full orchestra. Tyranny is conquered. Right prevails.

John Corigliano (b. 1938), Clarinet Concerto

John Corigliano was born on February 16, 1938 in New York City. His Clarinet Concert was composed 1977 and premiered by the New York Philharmonic on December 6, 1977 in New York City, conducted by Leonard Bernstein with Stanley Drucker as soloist. The score calls for piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.

John Corigliano, one of today’s most prominent and frequently performed American composers, was born in New York City on February 16, 1938, and raised in a family rich in musical talent — his father, John, Sr., was for many years the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and his mother was an accomplished pianist and teacher. He first studied piano with his mother, and later took up the clarinet and was briefly a pupil of Stanley Drucker, longtime principal clarinetist of the Philharmonic, for whom he was to write a superb concerto in 1977. Though he early evidenced considerable musical talent, Corigliano’s interest in becoming a composer was not ignited until he discovered a recording of Copland’s Billy the Kid during his years at a Brooklyn high school. (His earlier ambition had been to become a cartoonist.) His father’s performance of the Walton Violin Concerto added further to his fascination with contemporary music, as did frequent attendance at rehearsals and concerts of the Philharmonic.

From 1955 to 1960, Corigliano studied at Columbia University with Otto Luening, who did much to encourage his student’s talent for creative work, and at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini. After graduating with honors from Columbia, Corigliano worked for three years as a programmer and writer for New York radio station WQXR; from 1961 to 1963, he was music director of station WBAI, also in New York. He served as associate producer at CBS for the New York Philharmonic’s televised Young People’s Concerts from 1961 to 1972, producer for Columbia Masterworks recordings in 1972-1973, music director of the Corfu Music Festival in 1973-1974, and Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1987 to 1990. Corigliano has taught at the Juilliard School since 1991, and in 2020 retired from Lehman College, City University of New York, which granted him the title Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music and established a composition scholarship in his name.

Corigliano’s works have been recognized with many prestigious awards. His First Symphony, inspired by friends he lost to AIDS, was unanimously hailed at its 1990 premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and received the Grawemeyer Award and two Grammy Awards (for Best Contemporary Composition and Best Orchestral Performance of the Year) in 1991. Following the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the work in March 1993, the BSO presented Corigliano the Horblit Award for a Distinguished Composition by an American composer. In April 2001, his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra received the Pulitzer Prize in Music; in March 2002, the National Arts Club in New York City honored him with their Gold Medal. Corigliano’s 1980 score for Ken Russell’s film Altered States was nominated for an Academy Award, and his second film score, for Hugh Hudson’s 1985 motion picture Revolution, received the Anthony Asquith Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film Music from the British Film Institute. In 2000, he won an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s film The Red Violin. The “grand opera buffa” The Ghosts of Versailles, based on the third book of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered with outstanding success by that company in New York on December 19, 1991. Ghosts subsequently was broadcast nationwide on PBS, and received the 1992 Composition of the Year Award from the first International Classical Music Awards. Also in 1992, Musical America named John Corigliano that publication’s first “Composer of the Year.” Corigliano’s many other distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Grammy Awards for “Best Contemporary Composition” for the orchestral song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2009), Conjurer: Concerto for Percussion and String Orchestra (2014), and the Los Angeles Opera recording of The Ghosts of Versailles (2015). Corigliano’s most recent opera, acclaimed at its premiere by Santa Fe Opera in July 2021, is The Lord of Cries, with a libretto by composer and writer Mark Adamo, which explores the “intriguing intersections between two classics of Western literature — The Bacchae by Euripides and Dracula by Bram Stoker — to warn of the monster within us, not around us.”

John Corigliano provided the following information about his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra:

“I. Cadenzas. The first movement is actually two cadenzas, separated by an interlude. It starts directly with the first cadenza, subtitled ‘Ignis fatuus’ (‘Will-o’-the wisp’). Like that phosphorescent flickering light, this cadenza is almost audibly invisible. The soloist begins with a rapid unaccompanied whispering run. He then appears and disappears, playing as fast as possible, leaving glowing remnants behind in the orchestra. All the material for this movement is contained in the initial cadenza, including a central chord which functions as a tonic might in conventional harmony. This chord (E-flat, D, A and E-natural) is derived from the clarinet melody, and is held by the strings under the rapid clarinet passages of the last part of the cadenza.

“The interlude begins with an orchestral tutti that transforms the original clarinet run into slow, almost primeval sounds in the lower winds, while the upper strings and winds play other fragments of the cadenza. The clarinet enters and shortly after begins to pull the orchestra ahead, goading it into a feverish tempo. The low winds then accelerate and become secco and the solo clarinet and trombones begin a contest consisting of glissandi of jagged canons, until the strings burst forth in a bubbling contrapuntal reiteration of the original clarinet run. From here to the end of the interlude, the orchestra and clarinet race ahead, building energy and preparing the listener for the percussion bursts that introduce the second cadenza, subtitled ‘Corona solis.’

“‘Corona solis’ (i.e., the crown or corona of the sun) is the macrocosmic version of the microcosmic ‘Ignis fatuus’ — the opening cadenza transformed into blazing bursts of energy, accompanied by orchestral outbursts and dominated by the soloist. ‘Corona solis’ builds to a peak that signals the entrance of the full orchestra. This in turn builds to a long-held climax in which the ‘tonic’ chord from the ‘Ignis fatuus’ boils with energy. The chord eventually diminishes in intensity until at last it is held only by four solo strings. The solo clarinet then enters pianissimo, and after assisting the disintegration of the held chord, it flickers and finally disappears into silence.

“II. Elegy. The slow movement, Elegy, was written in memory of my father, who died on September 1, 1975. He had been concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years, and I still find it hard to think of that orchestra without him sitting in the first chair. So the idea of an extended dialogue for clarinet and violin seemed not only natural but inevitable.

“The Elegy begins with a long, unaccompanied line for the violins. The lower strings enter, and a mood of sustained lyricism introduces the solo clarinet. The prevailing feeling is that of desolation. I deliberately avoided an emotional climax in the Elegy, feeling that sustaining the same mood throughout the music would achieve a heightened intensity. Structurally, this movement alternates two melodic ideas. The first (in B) is introduced by the strings, while the second (in B-flat) is represented by the clarinet. A three-note motto (C-sharp, B, B-flat) grows from the alternation of the two tonalities and provides a third major element. The movement ends as it began, with the same long violin line, this time joined by the clarinet.

“III. Antiphonal Toccata. The finale is my solution to the balance problems created by using the full orchestra in a wind concerto. Early on, I made a decision to save some of the instruments (five French horns, two trumpets and two clarinets) for the final moments of the Concerto. This gave the idea of physically separating them from the rest of the orchestra, and that, in turn, led to locating them in spatial positions so that they could be used antiphonally. An immediate problem arose — that of being able to synchronize the distant instruments with the orchestra. The relatively slow speed of sound can mean up to a one-second delay between the sounding of a tone and its perception at a distance in the concert hall, making precisely synchronized playing impossible. The solution, I found, was to write music which specifically shouldn’t be synchronized, and against these erratic patterns I superimposed the opposite rhythmic idea — that of toccata, with its regular, tightly aligned motor-rhythmic pulsation.

Antiphonal Toccata is basically in two sections: the first uses alternating calls on the stage as well as motion across the stage, and the second involves the players situated around the hall. While the strings of the orchestra are seated conventionally, the brass and percussion are re-situated for this movement, so that they can engage in antiphonal conversation. Trombones and tuba, usually placed near the trumpet, are here located to the left of the stage, while the trumpets are to the right. In addition, a set of timpani is positioned on either side.

“The movement begins with an irregular rhythmic pulsation at the far right of the stage as the last stands of cellos and violas play a single note which slowly moves across the stands of strings from right to left, finally ending at the far left of the stage in the last stand of violins. Over this, another note emerges in the trumpets in a slow, freely pulsating rhythm.

“Three bassoons and a contrabassoon provide the first melodic material, a quote from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sonata Pian’ e Forte, written in 1597. (The eminent musicologist Curt Sachs wrote that, with this piece, ‘the art of orchestration had been born.’ Gabrieli was one of the first composers to specify that particular instruments play particular lines, but his main interest for me lay in his brilliant use of antiphonal instrumental choirs.) The Gabrieli motive develops into a large pulsating chord, which contains all twelve notes, and forms the first of the two tone-rows used throughout the movement. The solo clarinet enters, introducing the toccata rhythm (his part is marked ‘computer-like’) and the second of the tone-rows, this one presented melodically. This section is followed by antiphonal calls between the solo clarinet and the stage brass. The dialogues take the form of short repeated fanfares constructed so that the choirs of instruments do not play repeated notes together, an element of non-alignment that will be developed in the finale’s second section. Solo clarinet and orchestra build to a sudden sforzando.

“The five offstage horns are now heard for the first time, playing a soft, cluster-like texture. This abrupt movement of the action off the stage is counterpointed by more onstage playing, including a recapitulation of the Gabrieli motive by four solo double-basses. The solo clarinet develops this material lyrically, and is joined by the two orchestral clarinets, placed right and left at the top of the hall. All play a slow descending triple canon. The soloist interrupts with a soft but rapid restatement of his toccata subject, but the rooftop clarinets ignore this and re-echo the descending canon. Suddenly the toccata returns fortissimo in the orchestra, establishing a momentum that continues to the end of the movement. Conversations between solo clarinet and onstage trumpets and trombones are now extended to include two offstage trumpets (rear-center of the hall). A short but highly virtuosic cadenza leads to an outburst of all offstage instruments and to a buildup of the initial row-chord in the full orchestra. This is followed by an extended coda with a fortissimo restatement of the Gabrieli theme and an antiphonal ending.

Russian Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

Tchaikovsky composed the Sixth Symphony between February 16 and August 24, 1893. He conducted the work’s premiere on October 28, 1893, with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in the Hall of Nobility in St. Petersburg. The score calls for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. Duration is about 46 minutes.


Tchaikovsky died in 1893, at the age of only 53. His death was long attributed to the accidental drinking of a glass of unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, but that theory has been questioned in recent years with the alternate explanation that he was forced to take his own life because of a homosexual liaison with the underage son of a noble family. Though the manner of Tchaikovsky’s death is incidental to the place of his Sixth Symphony in music history, the fact of it is not.

Tchaikovsky conducted his B minor Symphony for the first time only a week before his death. It was given a cool reception by musicians and public, and his frustration was multiplied when discussion of the work was avoided by the guests at a dinner party following the concert. Three days later, however, his mood seemed brighter and he told a friend that he was not yet ready to be snatched off by death, “that snubbed-nose horror. I feel that I shall live a long time.” He was wrong. The evidence of the manner of his death is not conclusive, but what is certain is the overwhelming grief and sense of loss felt by music lovers in Russia and abroad as the news of his passing spread. Memorial concerts were planned. One of the first was in St. Petersburg on November 18th, only twelve days after he died. Eduard Napravnik conducted the Sixth Symphony on that occasion, and it was a resounding success. The “Pathétique” was wafted by the winds of sorrow across the musical world, and became — and remains — one of the most popular symphonies ever written, the quintessential expression of tragedy in music.

In examining the Sixth Symphony, whether as performer or listener, care must be taken not to allow pathos to descend into bathos. It is virtually certain that Tchaikovsky was not anticipating his own death in this work. For most of 1893, his health and spirits were good, he was enjoying an international success unprecedented for a Russian composer, and work on the new Symphony was going well. He wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov in February that he was composing “with such ardor that in less than four days I have completed the first movement, while the remainder is clearly outlined in my head.” Tchaikovsky was pleased with the finished work. “I give you my word of honor that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy, in the knowledge that I have written a good piece,” he told his publisher, Jurgenson, as soon as he had finished the score in August. The somber message of the music, therefore, seems not to have been a reflection of the moods and events of Tchaikovsky’s last months.

The music of the “Pathétique” is a distillation of the strong residual strain of melancholy in Tchaikovsky’s personality rather than a mirror of his daily feelings and thoughts. Though he admitted there was a program for the Symphony, he refused to reveal it. “Let him guess it who can,” he told Vladimir Davidov. A cryptic note discovered years later among his sketches suggests that the first movement was “all impulsive passion; the second, love; the third, disappointments; the fourth, death — the result of collapse.” It is not clear, however, whether this précis applied to the finished version of the work, or was merely a preliminary, perhaps never even realized, plan. That Tchaikovsky at one point considered the title “Tragic” for the score gives sufficient indication of its prevailing emotional content.

The title “Pathétique” was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his elder brother, Modeste. In his biography of Peter, Modeste recalled that they were sitting around a tea table one evening after the premiere, and the composer was unable to settle on an appropriate designation for the work before sending it to the publisher. The sobriquet “Pathétique” popped into Modeste’s mind, and Tchaikovsky pounced on it immediately: “Splendid, Modi, bravo. ‘Pathétique’ it shall be.” This title has always been applied to the Symphony, though the original Russian word carries a meaning closer to “passionate” or “emotional” than to the English “pathetic.”

The Symphony opens with a slow introduction dominated by the sepulchral intonation of the bassoon, whose melody, in a faster tempo, becomes the impetuous first theme of the exposition. Additional instruments are drawn into the symphonic argument until the brasses arrive to crown the movement’s first climax. The tension subsides into silence before the yearning second theme appears, “like a recollection of happiness in time of pain,” according to American musicologist Edward Downes. The tempestuous development section, intricate, brilliant and the most masterful thematic manipulation in Tchaikovsky’s output, is launched by a mighty blast from the full orchestra. The recapitulation is more condensed, vibrantly scored and intense in emotion than the exposition. The major tonality achieved with the second theme is maintained until the hymnal end of the movement.

Tchaikovsky referred to the second movement as a scherzo, though its 5/4 meter gives it more the feeling of a waltz with a limp. This music’s rhythmic novelty must have been remarkable in 1893, and the distinguished Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick even suggested that it should be changed to 6/8 to avoid annoyance to performers and listeners. Charles O’Connell, however, saw the irregular meter as essential to the movement’s effect, “as if its gaiety were constantly under constraint; directed, not by careless joy, but by a determination to be joyful.”

The third movement is a boisterous march whose brilliant surface may conceal a deeper meaning. Tchaikovsky’s biographer John Warrack wrote, “On the face of it, this is a sprightly march; yet it is barren, constructed out of bleak intervals, and for all the merriness of its manner, essentially empty, with a coldness at its heart.”

The tragedy of the finale is apparent immediately at the outset in its somber contrast to the whirling explosion of sound that ends the third movement. A profound emptiness pervades the finale, which maintains its slow tempo and mood of despair throughout. Banished completely are the joy and affirmation of the traditional symphonic finale, here replaced by a new emotional and structural concept that opened important expressive possibilities for 20th-century composers. Olin Downes dubbed this movement “a dirge,” and, just as there is no certainty about what happens to the soul when the funeral procession ends, so Tchaikovsky here leaves the question of existence forever hanging, unanswered, embodied in the mysterious, dying close of the Symphony.

Wrote former Boston Symphony Orchestra program annotator Philip Hale, “The somber eloquence of the ‘Pathétique,’ its pages of recollected joy fled forever, its wild gaiety quenched by the thought of the inevitable end, its mighty lamentations — these are overwhelming and shake the soul.”

©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda