Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Program Notes

Program Pieces & Movements

Arturo Márquez

  • Danzón No. 4 (b. 1950) (1996)


Kati Agócs

  • Horn Concerto (World Premiere) (b. 1975) (2020)
    I. Insouciant
    II. Lyrical
    III. Spirited

    James Sommerville, Horn


Commissioned by Symphony Nova Scotia, Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchesta.



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  • Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 75 (Pathétique) (1840-1893) (1893)

    I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
    II. Allegro con grazia
    III. Allegro con vivace
    IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso

Program Notes

Arturo Márquez danzón No. 4 (1996)

Arturo Márquez grew up hearing the violin of his mariachi musician father. After study in his native Mexico, California, and France, he found international fame in middle age for his series of danzones for orchestra, 1992-2004. They create a captivating atmosphere through the rhythmic and melodic hooks of mid-twentieth-century Mexican dance hall music, especially popular in Veracruz. He says, “I was fascinated, and I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness, a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world…” Smooth, singing lines unwind over the top of syncopated, gently compelling patterns.

The danzón is originally Cuban by the same roots as the duplemeter habanera and evolved into the mambo, evoked here toward the end. Márquez’s orchestration in the collection gives solo passages to most instruments, melding them in a chamber-like collage of vivid sound colors.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel catapulted the Danzón No. 2 to cult status and prompted the composer to resume the series in 2017. The initial eight danzones were recorded along with the composer’s receipt of a Mexican national award in 2006. Danzón No.4 of 1996 is dedicated to Arturo’s brothers Beatrizand Sergio. It features many members of the wind section, including saxophone, while in proper dance band mode, the piano often supports.

Kati Agócs Horn Concerto (World Premier) (2020)

My Horn Concerto highlights the lyrical and virtuosic properties of the solo horn. The piece’s instrumentation— two clarinets, two bassoons, and strings— takes the rich, dark hues of Mozart’s orchestra in his Third Horn Concerto as a point of departure. Apart from the parallel with the Mozart in terms of instrumentation, my Horn Concerto inhabits a sound world that is very much its own, showcasing different kinds of horn playing in each of its three movements.

The first movement, with its insouciant quality, evokes the instrument’s huntinghorn origins, embedding fanfare-like melodies in non-functional harmony. 

The second movement is lyrical; its long, embellished melodic lines evolve through gauzy string textures, featuring an interplay between the solo horn and the first clarinet, who start out trading phrases and end up duetting. 

The third and final movement is driven and angular. A spirited subject/answer complex gives way to more atmospheric sonorities but ultimately returns to its chromatic and punchy start, featuring members of the orchestra soloistically along the way. This movement introduces low woodwind doublings (bass clarinet and contrabassoon) that I have added as an extension of Mozart’s orchestra. 

The cadenza features the special sonority of glissandi (slides through many partials) combined with a stopped sound in the solo part. “My Horn Concerto was written for James Sommerville in 2020 as a co-commission by a consortium of five orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. It is eighteen minutes in duration,” says Kati Agócs on August 2021.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique" (1893)

Is music with a program (non-musical inspiration) less inventive or accomplished than “absolute” music without a plotline? It’s a complex question often discussed from the Romantic era into the twentieth century, including during Tchaikovsky’s career. This symphony is a particular case for making us try to define what constitutes a program and whether the composer’s use or disclosure of it makes any difference.

Tchaikovsky was constantly drawn to opera and wrote many of them (mostly neglected in the West), so the notion of illustrating a story attracted him. Nonetheless, the prejudice of his German-style conservatory education weighed on him and there is an element of guilt in his admission around this symphony that perhaps he should stick to program music, i.e. that his powers of invention were no longer up to writing from scratch, so to speak. By this point, he had produced plenty of absolute music but also ballets with well-defined albeit wordless plots, besides operas.

The symphony that was supposed to be number six was progressing in 1892 when Tchaikovsky decided it was too uninspired to see the light of day. While he later recycled part of it, a new “program” symphony took its place, broadly darker in mood than the earlier one. There is even a quote from the Russian Orthodox Requiem, and the entire symphony heard tonight dies away. Why did he do this? Work on this B minor symphony happened early in 1893 before Tchaikovsky visited England to accept an honorary doctorate, placing him in the front rank of international composers. But he found Victorian London ugly and commented that “only at home that I can work really properly.” Returning to Russia, he orchestrated the symphony with some difficulty: “Twenty years ago, I let myself write easily without much thought, and it was all right. Now I have become more cowardly and uncertain. I have sat all day over two pages.” At fifty-three Tchaikovsky had given himself permission to write a more experimental symphony ending with a slow movement, and after this struggle declared it to his nephew Bob, the dedicatee, to be the “best and especially the most sincere of my works. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical creations.” He consulted a violinist on bowings and had the piece read by the Moscow Conservatory students.

Tchaikovsky departed October 22 for St. Petersburg, where he was to lead the premiere, met by his brother Modest, at whose new apartment he’d be staying, and Bob. Despite the composer’s esteemed reputation, the orchestra players seemed bored in rehearsals, and Tchaikovsky let them out early. He was greeted with a standing audience ovation on taking the rostrum at the October 28 opening concert of the Russian Musical Society. But again, the music failed to fully engage, probably because listeners expected something akin to the previous symphonies and their conventional narratives traversing threat to triumph. Always sensitive to people’s opinions, Tchaikovsky quickly ascertained the qualms: the symphony was “not disliked” but “caused some bewilderment.”

Nonetheless, the sixth symphony is not all doom and gloom. Its elegant second movement assimilates a pulse of five beats by sounding perfectly natural. The march is a more muscular cousin of the Nutcracker’s counterpart, proving Tchaikovsky was technically skilled enough to elaborate any material to the length he felt fitting.

The morning after the premiere, Modest found his brother at the dining table with the score, thinking of how to append the title to help the reception at upcoming performances. It was too teasing to call it a program symphony without divulging the content, which Tchaikovsky had no intention of doing. Modest, a literary man, made suggestions. Tragic? No. Pathétique? Yes! Just like Beethoven’s piano sonata, it means passionate and rich with emotion, not “pathetic.” Tchaikovsky’s letter to the publisher confirmed the new title.

Still in town for the next performance, he moved on to other business but began feeling unwell. Cholera epidemics passed through Russia about every ten years in the nineteenth century, and St. Petersburg was in the thick of one unusually late in the season. Realizing he had caught the dreaded illness, Tchaikovsky resisted the bath treatment that was one of the few meager tools of physicians since that step preceded his mother’s death from the disease. Word went around the city and doctors posted regular bulletins to the public on his condition. After three days of severe symptoms, he became a casualty only nine days after the concert.

Connections between the symphony’s mood and circumstances have been too much to resist for many writers. It has been stated categorically that Tchaikovsky took his own life by purposely drinking unboiled water, known to be a primary carrier of cholera. As a disease of poor sanitation, it was by 1893 contracted mainly by the lower classes, not a man of Tchaikovsky’s professional stature. That hypothesis was extended by connecting it with a purported homosexual scandal or lurid affair over which he supposedly felt great shame or was even forced to expiate (à la Socrates with hemlock) by intentionally imbibing contaminated water under various implausible mechanisms of authority.

Supporters of this notion could identify his previous depressive bouts and financial troubles. (He asked for a loan from friends a few months earlier, complete with hypothetical repayment from royalties in case of untimely death.) There is a verbal sketch left on music paper for a symphony about life, love, disappointment, and death, which are admittedly standard subjects treated by many composers. It seems more than a coincidence that romanticized fables have grown up around Tchaikovsky and his idol Mozart, both of whom died while or after writing elegiac music. Plenty of others didn’t (including Tchaikovsky on prior occasions). Meanwhile, restaurants in Russia were known to have diluted boiled water with tap water to cool it down more quickly, and the composer usually drank water with meals, so accidental ingestion is more than possible. Incidentally, Russian homosexuality, especially among educated classes, was considered an indulgence like gambling or drinking, not a legal hazard as in England. None of this makes the preventable loss of Tchaikovsky any less lamentable, it just probably wasn’t intentional.