PYTOR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (May 7, 1840 [Gregorian Calendar], Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia – November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg)

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888)

“I concluded that this symphony is unsuccessful. There is something repulsive about it; some excess of crudeness and insincerity, artificiality.”  Thus wrote Tchaikovsky after he conducted his Fifth Symphony at its Prague premiere in 1888. What could have prompted him to such a strident opinion of his own work?  The symphony’s St. Petersburg premiere was a rousing success, coming as it did ten years after his monumental Fourth Symphony. While working on the Fifth, Tchaikovsky wrote “I am dreadfully anxious to prove not only to others, but to myself as well, that I am not yet played out as a composer.  …The beginning was difficult; now inspiration seems to have come… It seems to me that I have not blundered, that it has turned out well.”  His expectations were high, in other words, but he often minimized the significance of a new work, particularly when a more promising project loomed ahead (in this case, the ballet The Sleeping Beauty).  The Symphony has remained a mainstay of the concert stage since its premiere, yet like all of Tchaikovsky’s works it has suffered periods of programming neglect and disparaging critical assessments. (Composers who have too many popular hits never have it easy with critics!)

The Fifth Symphony shares some characteristics with its predecessor, primarily the tragic mood that pervades the cataclysmic opening and the plangent oboe melody in the second movement of the Fourth. The Fifth Symphony also suggests the opening of the even darker Sixth Symphony, and it is easy to read into all of these works a mind troubled by thoughts of death. Tchaikovsky was careful not to suggest a programmatic element in the Fifth Symphony, which he had rashly ascribed to the Fourth. But he did, in fact, jot down notes to accompany sketches of the themes of the first movement which, while written at the inception of the symphony, are not equivocally associated with the music. “Introduction: complete and utter bow before fate, or also before the inscrutable design of Providence.” Later: “Can one not throw oneself into the embrace of faith?” Certainly, it is tempting to associate these thoughts with the heavy tread of the march-like theme in the first movement and the triumphant transfiguration of the same theme in the finale. We should be content to remember that Tchaikovsky believed music to be the supreme means of expressing what it means to be human.

The second movement is remembered by older generations in America as the source for a big band hit from 1939 called Moon Love. It is a beautiful example of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical invention – tunes you can’t get out of your head. A soulful and gentle solo for the horn is followed by a second theme that is eventually whipped up to such a fury (Tchaikovsky calls for the orchestra to reach an unprecedented ffff!) that it is hard to believe a conventional Beethoven-sized orchestra is employed.  Tchaikovsky was peerless (along with Johann Strauss) at writing waltzes and he often imbued them with odd characteristics that only increased their charm. In the case of the third movement, Tchaikovsky adds a Nutcracker-like scramble and ends with a brief recounting of the fateful theme from first movement. The finale brings the first movement theme back in a more optimistic E-major version, the dominance of which follows through with a blazing march and fast break to the conclusion.

©Jay Stebley 2016