This sequence is based on the second theme from the first movement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.
Tchaikovsky was a master melody maker and one of the reasons his music is still so popular today is the ear-worm quality of his music. His ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty, are all packed with tunes that stick in your head for weeks after hearing a performance.
The programs and characters in his symphonies are less defined, but the tunes are just as memorable.
The Sixth Symphony
This symphony was written in the final chapter of Tchaikovsky’s life, although he didn’t realize he was in the final chapter. He conducted the premiere in 1893 only a week before he died, and a few days later told his friend that he thought he would live a long time.
With the premiere of this symphony coming so close to Pyotr’s death date, many people think the music is specifically about death, but it isn’t. This symphony is about the tragedies that we all must face as we go about our lives. Death is one tragedy that we all must eventually face, but there is also heartbreak, disease, discrimination, natural disasters, and others that are specific to each of our lives.
What makes this symphony special, what makes this tragedy so painful, is the juxtaposition of the good and the bad.
This symphony starts with a brooding melody that develops and matures to reach a dramatic statement before dissolving into the silence that sets up the theme of this sequence.
American musicologist Edward Downes said this second theme appears, “Like a recollection of happiness in a time of pain,” and I think he is spot on. The contrast between this theme and what it is surrounded by is what makes it so effective and satisfying. Similarly, the contrast between the joy of the 3rd movement march and the 4th movement Adagio lamentoso is what makes the symphony special.
Play this melody as lyrically and lovingly as you can. Tchaikovsky was the master of the musical sigh, and this melody is a perfect example. Sigh your way through each phrase as if you are taking a break amidst one of life’s struggles.
I chose to focus on the beginning of the melody for this sequence. This is a golden opportunity to use your ears and figure out how it ends.
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