Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, “Pathetique”

Tonight the Columbus Symphony plays Peter Tchaikovsky's 6th and last symphony, the "Pathetique". I'll discuss some of the technical issues in the piece, mainly the difficult clarinet entrance on the first page. But first a few words about the composer.

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere, on November 6, 1893. The cause of his death is still not known for sure, though common accounts blame it on cholera. However, the facts surrounding his death are suspicious, such as that he died very quickly for someone with cholera, and did not receive the usual care for someone in such condition. The news reports of his death at the time also questioned the circumstances.

You can find the full scoop on his death in this article from The Straight Dope, How did Tchaikovsky really die?

Now for some technical tips for the first excerpt.

tchaikovsky 6th symphony, first clarinet part

First clarinet: Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony

The soft articulated entrance, 5 bars after B on a high e after a sixteenth rest, creates a stressful situation. The entrance cannot be late. Moreover, it cannot be too loud. Luckily the crescendo indicated allows the player to get a good foothold as soon as the first few notes come out.

To prepare for this excerpt, and others like it which require soft, high staccato attacks (such as the e-b cuckoo) I first practice getting the note to speak softly with only an air attack, no tongue. This can be a journey in itself, requiring the tongue position and soft palette to be in just the right position.

Then I practice attacking the note "on the air", by which I mean that I blow through the instrument as if I am about to attack the note with just air, and just before the note speaks, I articulate it lightly with the tongue. If done correctly, the tongue feels as if it gets caught in the air flow, then can lightly release the note.

This method has two benefits. First it helps to prevent biting and "choking" the reed. Second it prepares the air by getting it moving BEFORE the note is played.

I also tried a special soft fingering for the high e, which is notated in the photo of the part. But I have decided not to use it, because it plays a bit flat. I half-hole the high e and it works fine that way.

In the famous second theme, Tchaikovsky uses the clarinet masterfully by having it play the theme almost alone, and incredibly soft, as if barely alive. This kind of sotto voce writing is perfect for clarinet.

Our conductor this week, Delta David Gier, draws a heavy and depressing interpretation of this symphony, perhaps appropriate for a piece called "Pathetique" written by a desperately depressed man!

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2 comments for “Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, “Pathetique”

  1. John Peacock
    April 18, 2010 at

    David, Thanks for your comments on this solo. With standard fingering, and even half-holing, I'm always a little scared that it will pop out as A, rather than E – does that ever concern you? I've searched for a long time for more stable fingerings for E (the equivalent of the long fingering for F). The best I've found is to play standard Eflat and then add the throat A key; this is just a touch sharp, but can be fixed by holding the middle finger of the R hand closer to its hole. I couldn't quite read your suggested fingering on the scan – could you possibly describe it in more detail? Thanks.

    • April 18, 2010 at

      Hi John. The E pops up to an A if you bite or take too much mouthpiece. That said, it happens to the best of us, including me. (I played Brahms F minor sonata and the loud high e in the development popped up to an A, in two performances. At least it fit with the chord.)

      The alternate fingering I had written in my part is a high Eb with the C#/G# key as well. It can be bitten, and almost needs it to work. Hope that helps. Let me know.

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