Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) — “his greatest,” observes CSO annotator Phillip Huscher, was well as his last — has made an outsized impact on popular culture. Though not as widely referenced as the composer’s Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, the Pathétique spawned four pop hits during the post-war era, for instance, and continues to be quoted on dozens of film and TV soundtracks. Among the most recent examples are Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004) and Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002), along with the animated series “The Simpsons” (the 2012 episode “A Tree Grows in Springfield”) and “Ren & Stimpy” (the two-part 2003 sequel “Fire Dogs”).
The CSO, under Riccardo Muti, performs Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) in concerts Feb. 26-28 and March 3.
But no pop-culture totem owes more to Tchaikovsky’s symphony than “Now, Voyager” (1942), the prototypical “women’s movie,” starring Bette Davis as a Boston spinster who finally finds romance — and her place in the world. Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score borrows heavily from the Pathétique, especially for the film’s love theme, title-credits sequence and finale. Regarded as “the father of film music,” Steiner in the 1930s introduced the Wagnerian leitmotif style to cinema, creating “a network of themes and motifs that organized characters, their fears, their loves and their desires into identifiable melodic signifiers,” writes critic Paul Cote.
Furthermore, with his work on the film “Symphony of Six Million” (1932), Steiner was essential in introducing the concept of a continuous score. In his book Max Steiner: Vienna, London, New York, and Finally Hollywood, Tony Thomas quotes the composer: “Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring — the producers were afraid the audience would ask, ‘Where’s the music coming from?’ But with this picture [‘Symphony of Six Million’], we proved scoring would work.”
Thomas goes on to observe, “It was Steiner more than any other composer who pioneered the use of original composition as background scoring for films.” From then on, notes Mervyn Cooke in The Hollywood Film Music Reader, “a third to half of the success of most films was attributed to the extensive use of music.”
Footnotes: Turner Classic Movies will screen “Now, Voyager” on March 3, beginning at 1:45 p.m. (CST). The CSO has recorded the Pathétique six times (the photo above comes from the cover of the 1957 version, conducted by Fritz Reiner for RCA). All six are out of print but most are available for purchase at the CSO’s Symphony Store, 65 E. Adams.
VIDEO: The film’s original trailer, via YouTube.