Innovation Blog

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique:   The Delight of Surprise in Innovation

By Shlomo Maital


Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Last night, my wife and I heard the Israeli Philharmonic, led by conductor Yoel Levi, play Tchaikovsky’s  Symphony no. 6 in B minor (Pathétique).  We observed a tiny lesson for innovators.

   There are  four movements in this wonderful work.  The third movement is labeled “allegro molto vivace” which means “very lively”.  And very loud!  The movement ends with a flourish of timpani and bass drum, with the orchestra playing at top volume, in a closing crescendo… and the audience bursts into applause (including me – and I know the piece quite well), thinking it is the final movement. 

   The conductor and orchestra waited patiently for the applause to die down, as we looked at one another sheepishly, and then began the fourth movement. 

   The fourth movement of the symphony is labeled “adagio lamentoso” (which means plaintive, sad),  and it is very soft, quiet, somber, an elegy, with a huge gong sounding like a death knell.  And the movement, and the symphony, end, like no other symphony I know, with pianissimo (very very soft), almost inaudible  ….and the conductor holds the movement, stands motionless, the auditorium is absolutely silent, you can hear a pin drop, nobody applauds, nobody moves, the moment of utter silence is held, held, held….. and then, applause!  

    The rule is, you end symphonies like Beethoven’s Fifth, with a loud bang.  Why? said Tchaikovsky. Why not end it almost inaudibly?  Why not surprise the audience?  Why not break the rules? 

    Innovators – try to surprise.  Try to put at least something in your creation that is aimed at surprising and delighting, something unexpected.  Listen again to the Pathetique…if you wish, just to the end of the third movement, and then the end of the fourth and last movement..and find inspiration.   If everyone follows Rule #27, do the precise opposite.

    Tchaikovsky died a few days after the premiere of Pathetique.  The audience and critics received it coolly (hard to believe?).  But Tchaikovsky himself thought it was one of his greatest works – and it was.  The symphony takes 40 minutes to play – but those closing few seconds of near-silence are insightful, impressive and unforgettable.