Composers Datebook®

A 'pathetic' symphony by Tchaikovsky

Composer's Datebook - October 28, 2023


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 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 has called “voluptuous gloom.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) - Russian National Orchestra; Mikhail Pletnev, cond. DG 449 967

On This Day


  • 1896 - American conductor, composer and Eastman School of Music director, Howard Hanson, in Wahoo, Nebraska;


  • 1755 - French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, age 65, in Roissy-en-Brie;


  • 1893 - Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique"), at the Hall of Nobles in St. Petersburg, with Tchaikovsky conducting (Julian date: Oct. 16);

  • 1915 - R. Strauss: "An Alpine Symphony," in Berlin, with the composer conducting;

  • 1925 - Loeffler: "The Canticle of the Sun," for voice and chamber orchestra, at the Library of Congress Festival of Chamber Music in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1931 - William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American"), by the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic, Howard Hanson conducting;

  • 1932 - Stravinsky: "Duo Concertante" for Violin and Piano, in Berlin at the Funkhaus, with violinist Samuel Dushkin and the composer at the piano;

  • 1935 - Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 15, in Moscow;

  • 1942 - R. Strauss: opera "Capriccio," in Munich at the Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Clemens Krauss, with vocal soloists Viorica Ursuleac (The Countess), Horst Taubmann (Flamand), Hans Hotter (Olivier), and Georg Hann (La Roche);

  • 1943 - Martinu: "Memorial to Lidice," in New York City;

  • 1952 - Elliott Carter: Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for flute,oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, in New York, by members of the New York Woodwind Quintet;

  • 1955 - Bernstein: incidental music for "The Lark" (play by Jean Anoilh adapted by Lillian Hellman) at trial run in Boston at the Plymouth Theater; The show opened in New York City at the Longacre Theater on November 17, 1955;

  • 1965 - Ned Rorem: "Lions" for orchestra and jazz combo, by the Detroit Symphony, Sixten Ehrling conducting;

  • 1972 - Morton Feldman: "Pianos and Voices," in Buffalo, N.Y.;

  • 2001 - Kamran Ince: "Flight Box," at the Milwaukee Art Museum, by the ensemble Present Music.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®