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The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 28 October [O.S. 16 October] of that year, nine days before his death. The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on 6/18 November. It included some minor corrections that Tchaikovsky had made after the premiere, and was thus the first performance of the work in the exact form in which it is known today. The first performance in Moscow was on 16 December [O.S. 4 December], conducted by Vasily Safonov. It was the last of Tchaikovsky’s compositions premiered in his lifetime; his last composition of all, the single-movement 3rd Piano Concerto, Op. 75, which was completed in October 1893, a short time before his death, received a posthumous premiere.
After completing his 5th Symphony in 1888, Tchaikovsky did not start thinking about his next symphony until April 1891, on his way to the United States. The first drafts of a new symphony were started in the spring of 1891. However, some or all of the symphony was not pleasing to Tchaikovsky, who tore up the manuscript “in one of his frequent moods of depression and doubt over his alleged inability to create.” In 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote the following to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov:
The symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable.
This work was the Symphony in E-flat, the first movement of which Tchaikovsky later converted into the one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto (his final composition), and the latter two movements of which Sergei Taneyev reworked after Tchaikovsky’s death as the Andante and Finale.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky mentions an entirely new symphonic work in a letter to his brother:
I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
The symphony was written in a small house in Klin and completed by August 1893. Tchaikovsky left Klin on 19 October for the first performance in St. Petersburg, arriving “in excellent spirits.” However, the composer began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote, “There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions. There was not the mighty, overpowering impression made by the work when it was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, on November 18, 1893, and later, wherever it was played.”