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Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony (Pathétique) – Ferenc Fricsay conducting

By May 28, 2018September 22nd, 2019No Comments

Today, I decided to move back to orchestral music.  We are going to hear Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, which many consider to be his masterpiece.  And we are going to hear it conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, whom most of you will never have heard of.  Fricsay was a Hungarian conductor who died at 49 or 50 of stomach cancer.  His career was therefore cut very short.  He was a marvelously talented conductor, the likes of which we do not have today.  I will write some more about him below the recordings from the symphony.

Symphony No. 6 (Tchaikovsky)

The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 74, also known as the Pathétique Symphony, is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final completed symphony, written between February and the end of August 1893. The composer entitled the work “The Passionate Symphony”, employing a Russian word, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), meaning “passionate” or “emotional”, that was then (mis-)translated into French as pathétique, meaning “solemn” or “emotive”.

The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on  October16/28 (Julian Calendar/ Gregorian Calendar) of that year, nine days before his death (October 25/November 6, 1893). The second performance, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, took place 21 days later, at a memorial concert on  November 6/18. 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 4/16 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.

Dedication and suggested programs

Tchaikovsky dedicated the Pathétique to his nephew, Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, whom he greatly admired.

The Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.

Berlin-Radio-Symphonie-Orchestra & Ferenc Fricsay

1st movement, Tchaikovsky, 6th Symphony in B min, op. 74, Adagio – Allegro non troppo)

2nd movement, 05 Tchaikovsky, 6th Symphony in B min, op. 74, (Allegro con grazia)

3rd movement, Tchaikovsky, 6th Symphony in B min, op. 74, (Allegro molto vivace)

4th movement, Tchaikovsky, 6th Symphony in B min, op. 74, (Finale_ Adagio lamentoso)


Ferenc Fricsay

Ferenc Fricsay (August 9, 1914 – February 20,1963) was a Hungarian conductor. From 1960 until his death, he was an Austrian citizen.


Fricsay was born in the early days of the First World War, in Budapest, the only son of Hungary’s highest-ranking military musician. His childhood and adolescence, devoted to music as they were, were largely unaffected by the devastation of war, unlike his home country. His father Richard Fricsay, who had taken part in the premiere of Dvorák’s Stabat mater as a young violinist, soon took his son’s wide-ranging instrumental tutelage in hand (piano, violin, clarinet, trombone and percussion). Blessed with perfect pitch, Ferenc was accepted at the Franz Liszt Academy at the age of 14, having passed a difficult examination. It was then one of the most important, long-established and most demanding music conservatories in the world. Here he was taught by Béla Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi, Jenö Hubay, Zoltán Kodály and Leó Weiner, to name only a few. And it was here that he was given a thorough grounding in both the foundations of the European musical tradition and approaches to contemporary music. Conducting and composition were his main subjects. From 1930 his father entrusted him with the task of conducting the junior department of his symphony orchestra, consisting of gifted 14- to 16-year-old musicians. And from this time date a string quartet, an orchestral suite, a violin concerto and some choral and vocal compositions. With this almost fairy-tale training – by the standards of today – the young Fricsay acquired an artistic competence which sowed the seeds of his later success.

After passing his diploma exam in 1933, Fricsay turned down the offer to become a repetiteur – without conducting duties – at the Budapest State Opera and instead applied for the vacant military bandmaster position in Szeged, with a university and garrison. One of his predecessors there was than Franz Lehár. The 19-year-old Fricsay was chosen out of 57 applicants; he also assumed the direction of the Szeged Philharmonic Orchestra.

On graduating in 1933, Fricsay became repetiteur for the chorus of the Budapest Opera; then, from 1933 to 1943, he was music director of the Szeged Philharmonic Orchestra in the third largest city in Hungary; he also served as director of its military band from 1933. In 1942, he was court-martialed by the government of Miklós Horthy for wanting to employ Jewish musicians, and for having “Jewish blood” himself (according to reliable reports, his mother was Jewish). When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, the chief editor of the Szeged daily newspaper warned Fricsay that the Gestapo planned to arrest him. Fricsay and his wife, Marta (née Telbisz) and three children Marta, Ferenc and Andras, avoided this fate by going underground in Budapest.

In January 1945, when German occupiers and Soviet troops were still fighting in parts of Budapest, an emissary of the Budapest City Orchestra, today the Hungarian National Philharmonic, visited Fricsay and asked him to conduct a concert scheduled for the end of the month in a largely intact theatre near Fricsay’s hiding-place. This engagement resulted in an invitation for him to assume the chief conductorship of the orchestra alongside László Somogyi. At last, on April 26, 1945, he gave his long-awaited debut at the Budapest State Opera with Verdi’s La Traviata. Fricsay became first conductor there and remained with the company until March 1949. It held a premier position among international opera houses, not least because Otto Klemperer conducted there frequently. It was a lucky chance for Fricsay that his older colleague was happy to take him in hand and go through the complete Mozart symphonies with him.

On 12 December 1948, Fricsay conducted his first concert with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra. This encounter was to prove the most decisive in Fricsay’s artistic career. Working with this orchestra, which was renamed Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (RSO) in 1956 and is now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, became his life’s task.

Fricsay gave his last concert on December 7, 1961 in London where he conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. He suffered from repeated illnesses throughout his life and finally succumbed to cancer of the stomach on 20 February 1963 at the age of 48 in Basel, Switzerland.