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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials –Symphony Pathétique

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B. Minor, nicknamed Pathétique, is perhaps the Russian composer’s greatest work, while simultaneously being his most misunderstood. For years critics interpreted the symphony as a kind of suicide note; Tchaikovsky died shortly after it premiered in 1893. The symphony’s nickname doesn’t help matters. A better rendering of the symphony’s Russian title would be closer to “Passionate.” Let’s learn more about this symphony, which was not a melancholic lament from Tchaikovsky, but rather a universal tale of the struggle between life and death.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Symphony Pathétique.


The first movement of Symphony Pathétique begins with a bassoon solo emerging from a descending chromatic bassline. After sketching out a theme inspired by the “Flower Song” from Carmen, the bassoon theme returns. This time, however, Tchaikovsky has marked it to play at an extremely quiet volume marked pppppp in the score.


Almost immediately after the quiet bassoon theme the orchestra bursts forth with a fugue marked “feroce” (ferocious). Although the volume doesn’t stay at that intensity, the brass section remains and quotes from a traditional Russian Orthodox prayer for the dead.


The second movement of the symphony is characterized by a passage in 5/4 time. Although it feels like a waltz, the tempo is slightly “off,” lending it a limping quality.


While the second movement is dominated by an uncertain waltz, the third is built around a march. The march seems to grow in volume throughout the movement, ending the movement in a fortissimo. This bombastic coda is preceded by forceful downward scales that appear elsewhere in the symphony as well.


Perhaps much of our misunderstanding about the piece stems from the final movement. Gone is the triumphalism of the third, and in its place is a long, slow, melancholic adagio in B minor. This adagio, marked “lamentoso,” begins in the first and second violins, alternating back and forth over a descending scale. Although the fourth movement does reach a brief climax it ends with a stroke on the tam-tam, followed by the gradual fading away of the music.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • We told you that the symphony isn’t a suicide letter from Tchaikovsky. But why take our word for it? See what the experts have to say.

  • Read this article to learn about the rumors surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death and how his hand may have been forced.

  • Although it’s worth listening to the symphony in its entirety, the sheer emotional power of the fourth movement alone makes it worth listening to.

  • Tchaikovsky loved Bizet’s Carmen and one of the themes in the first movement is inspired by that opera’s "Flower Song":


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