Tchaikovsky has been a special victim of clichés. For years the authors of books and programme notes about his music laid down the law about him. The trick was to create a spurious solidarity between the author and the reader by depicting Tchaikovsky as a self-obsessed and deviant outsider. First misrepresent his character, then connect that to the supposed character of the music, and then declare that both are somehow second rate.

A typical essay from half a century ago, by Edward Lockspeiser, speaks of ‘that terror of the mind against which Tchaikovsky fought for the greater part of his life’. His music’s ‘pretty tunes and dainty effects are distorted by an ecstatic, self-lacerating personality… his forked sexuality condemning him to subterfuge… It is never pity he expresses, but self-pity and with it self-love and self-hatred… He is the musician of indulgence.’ How extraordinary that anyone could write such nonsense about another human being, let alone about a genius such as Tchaikovsky. For hardly a word Lockspeiser writes is true.

Of course it is easy for me to write like this more than 50 years after Lockspeiser, because now the fact that Tchaikovsky was homosexual can offend none but the lonely bigot. Added to which, the careful work of historians has since shown how mistaken our view of Tchaikovsky was. There was a time when we assumed Tchaikovsky killed himself, even that he was forced to do so. And, knowing he finished the Pathétique Symphony only months before he died, we heard this Sixth symphony as a suicide note. But what if this masterpiece had nothing to do with suicide, nor even anything to do with death? What if the falling tears in the finale were falling for another cause entirely?

In a 1997 book called Russian Talk, the American ethnographer Nancy Ries investigates the idea of the ‘lament’ in Russian culture. She makes connections between the ritualised laments of peasant culture (at funerals or at weddings, as in Stravinsky’s Les noces), the endless laments of modern Russians, and somewhere between them the laments of the great 19th-century Romantics. In Tchaikovsky’s work there are laments in his operas, his ballets and his songs, in his symphonic poems and symphonies, and most of all in the first and last movements of the Pathétique.

Some of the lamenting gestures Tchaikovsky shadows and transfigures in the framing movements of his Pathétique have their roots in the Russian opera, while others are to be found in the early 19th-century world of the Russian sentimental drawing-room romance – the everyday music of the better-off in Russia from the Napoleonic Wars till modern times. The characteristic ‘intonations’ (as Russian musicians call them) of the old romances were honed and developed by Tchaikovsky all his life.

Moreover, Tchaikovsky’s art was also shaped by his passion for the theatre. He completed ten operas and embarked on several others, as well as three of the greatest ballets ever written. And in different ways, each of his six symphonies is also at its root a drama. The ‘second themes’ (as Tchaikovsky himself labels them in his sketches) of the first and last movements of the Pathétique, then, are but the end and culmination of more than 30 years of preoccupation with the Russian lament, expressed within a dramatic context.

Famously Tchaikovsky began by calling his Sixth Symphony the ‘Programme Symphony’, with ‘a programme that will remain a mystery to everyone – let them guess’. It was his brother Modest who later suggested the title Pathétique. Much has been made of the fact that Tchaikovsky never revealed what the ‘programme’ was. (Presumably, the reason why he let it be known that there was meant to be a programme was because he wanted to make clear that it was the fact that his symphony sounded like a drama that should matter to the listener, not what the drama was about.)

Nevertheless, there are clues within the Pathétique that at least suggest its programme was not death and suicide. First and foremost are those melody-laments in the first and last movements. The genre to which they belong was the sorrowing romance of the heart-aching lover, reflected in the shapes and inflections of the tunes. But most revealing are the rhythmic phrases, the reminiscent leanings on the beat and sobbing skips which, to anyone who has listened to hours of Russian song, suggest those same old tags: ‘Lyublyu tebyá, lyublyu tebyá! Mne bol’no, mnye grustno, mne zhalko!’ (‘I love you, I love you! I’m in pain, I’m sad, I’m unhappy!’)

Tchaikovsky dedicated the Sixth Symphony to his nephew Vladimir Davydov, nicknamed ‘Bob’. Bob was the son of his sister Sasha and the great love of his later years (but probably not his sexual partner). He wrote to Bob while working on the Pathétique: ‘The programme is imbued with subjectivity and composing it in my mind, I wept terribly.’ After finishing the first movement sketch in six (!) days, he wrote at the end ‘Glory be to Thee, O God! Begun Thursday 4th Feb. Finished Tuesday 9th Feb ’93.’ Two days later he wrote to Bob: ‘You cannot imagine what bliss I feel, assured that my time has not yet passed and I can still work.’

The manuscript of that six-day sketch has other scribblings, including the first draft of that extraordinary moment towards the end of the movement. Here, instead of the dramatic silence that had interrupted between the first and second subjects at their first appearance, the trombones rise out of the depths with cry after cry of that phrase so recognisable from all those sweet long-ago romances and operatic scenes that were only there to make us cry – a rising minor sixth that then falls back a semitone, in that distinctive skipping rhythm: ‘Lyublyu tebyá! Lyublyu tebyá! Lyublyu tebyá!’ (‘I love you! I love you! I love you!’).

Gerard McBurney