TCHAIKOVSKY:  Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64 

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on April 25 (old style)/May 7 (new style), 1840, at Votkinsk, in the district of Viatka, Russia, some seven hundred miles east-northeast of Moscow, and died on October 25/November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg. He composed his Fifth Symphony between May and August 26, 1888, mostly in Frolovskoe, outside Moscow. The work was premiered on November 17, 1888, in Saint Petersburg, with the composer conducting the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society. It bears a dedication to Count Ave-Lallemant, Chairman of the Committee of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. Theodore Thomas introduced the work to the United States at a New York concert in March 1889. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were given in March 1914 under the direction of Henry Hadley. Herbert Blomstedt conducted the most recent performances here, this past February. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about fifty minutes.

Tchaikovsky approached his Fifth Symphony from a position of extreme self-doubt, nearly always his posture vis-à-vis his incipient creations. In May 1888, he confessed in a letter to his brother Modest that he feared his imagination had dried up, that he had nothing more to express in music. Still, there was a glimmer of hope: “I am hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.”

Tchaikovsky was spending the summer of 1888 at a vacation residence he had built on a forested hillside at Frolovskoe, not a long trip from his home base in Moscow. The idyllic locale proved conducive to inspiration and apparently played a major role in helping him conquer his demons long enough to complete this symphony, which he did in four months. The composer arrived at Frolovskoe on May 21 and immediately began working on two pieces at once: the Fifth Symphony and the symphonic poem Hamlet. But soon Hamlet was set aside and the symphony claimed his complete attention, such that its essential shape was sketched entirely by June 29. At that point he switched gears for five days, completing his draft of Hamlet; and then returning to refine and orchestrate his symphony, which he finished at the end of August.

It had long been Tchaikovsky’s habit to keep his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, informed about his compositions through detailed letters, and thanks to this ongoing correspondence we have a good deal of information about how the Fifth Symphony progressed during that summer. Tchaikovsky had met Mme. von Meck a dozen years earlier. In fact he hadn’t exactly “met” her, since an eccentric stipulation of her philanthropy (which amounted to five hundred rubles every month for fourteen years) was that they should avoid personal contact. Tchaikovsky’s labor on the symphony was already well along when he broached the subject with Mme. von Meck, in a letter on June 22: “I shall work my hardest. I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others, that I am not played out as a composer. Have I told you that I intend to write a symphony? The beginning was difficult, but now inspiration seems to have come. We shall see. . . .”

In fact, the composer’s first thoughts about the new symphony reached back at least to April of the same year, when he jotted in a notebook the following concept for the first movement:

Intr[oduction]. Complete resignation before Fate—or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence.
Allegro. 1. Murmurs of doubt, laments, reproaches against . . . XXX.
2. Shall I cast myself in the embraces of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.

Scholars have been left scratching their heads over this. The “X” is up for grabs. Some musicologists maintain that it refers to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, others to his gambling addiction; whatever it stood for, it was obviously something the composer considered secret and personal. The general plan did not survive the process of composition, so there is really no way it can be reconciled with the first movement as we know it. But at least this outline leaves no doubt about one thing that is likely to strike most listeners: This symphony is about something (even though Tchaikovsky later protested that the symphony had no program whatsoever).

The premiere took place in Saint Petersburg less than three months after the piece was completed. Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance in his usual wan fashion. Even Modest couldn’t put a very good spin on his brother’s skills on the podium. “Whenever he was conducting a new composition for the first time,” Modest recalled, “his performance showed an uncertainty, even carelessness, in his communication of details—a lack of determination and strength in communicating the whole. That is why the Fifth Symphony and Hamlet, given such a pallid showing by their composer, had so hard a time winning a true appraisal. . . .” The true appraisal to which Modest referred was that of the critics, both in Saint Petersburg and in a subsequent performance in Prague. The audiences loved the symphony, but Tchaikovsky, true to type, decided the critics must be right and went so far as to explain away the audience’s enthusiasm. In December he wrote to von Meck, “Having played my Symphony twice in Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated color, some insincerity of fabrication that the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations referred not to this but to other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public.” Elsewhere he wrote of his Fifth Symphony, “the organic sequence fails, and a skillful join has to be made. . . . I cannot complain of lack of inventive power, but I have always suffered from want of skill in the management of form.”

These comments reveal great perspicuity. One might say that Tchaikovsky was wrong, but for all the right reasons. The work’s orchestral palette is indeed unusually colorful (despite the fact that the composer employs an essentially Classical orchestra of modest proportions), but familiarity makes its eventful orchestration seem inevitable rather than precious. The composer was quite on target about “the management of form” being his weak suit; and, indeed, the Fifth Symphony may be viewed as something of a patchwork—the more so when compared to the relatively tight symphony that preceded it eleven years earlier. And if Tchaikovsky was embarrassed by the degree of overt sentiment he reached in the Fifth Symphony, it still fell short of the emotional frontiers he would cross in his Sixth.

The Fifth Symphony adheres to the classic four-movement form, but the movements are unified to some degree through common reference to a “motto theme,” a sort of Berliozian idée fixe announced by the somber clarinets at the outset. Most commentators are happy to agree that this represents the idea of Fate to which Tchaikovsky referred in his prose sketch of April 1888. It will reappear often in this symphony, sometimes reworked considerably, and it certainly defines the bleak tone that governs much of the proceedings. And yet, not everything is bleak. Shafts of sunlight often cut through the shadows: hopeful secondary melodies, orchestration of illuminating brightness, rhythmic vivacity and variety, passages of balletic grace.

The slow movement qualifies as a musical icon. Few melodies are as immediately memorable as its languid, nostalgic solo for horn, which gradually develops into a leisurely conversation with other solo winds. The theme emerges out of an introduction of supremely somber string chords and stands as a voice of consolation in the desolate wilderness. In the midst of the movement we are startled by a brutal interruption from the “Fate” theme, played by the brass. The rest of the orchestra, too, seems shocked, and holds its breath briefly before picking up the pieces of the languid melody (now with an overlay of contrapuntal elegance from various woodwinds) via some pizzicato chords.

A graceful waltz lightens the spirit for the third movement, its melody—Tchaikovsky said--derived from a song he had heard sung by a young boy in Florence some years earlier. Tchaikovsky’s masterful ballet scores inevitably come to mind as we listen to this charmed music. But Fate makes its presence known even here, in the form of a subdued statement of the motto by clarinets and bassoons near the end.

The symphony’s final movement leads to a close in which triumph is at least suggested as a possibility. The “Fate” theme, which has just closed the third movement, opens this finale, but now it is transposed from the minor mode into the major. The composer works out his musical ideas circuitously (though according to what may be generally considered a classic sonata form), and on the whole gives the impression that he is hell-bent on banishing the shadows that have haunted much of this symphony, rather after the models of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies. But in the end Tchaikovsky’s is a different story. “If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door,” wrote a commentator when the piece was new, “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.” It nearly does so in a journey that threatens to culminate in a series of climactic B-major chords. But notwithstanding the frequent interruption of audience applause at that point, the adventure continues to a conclusion that is to some extent ambiguous: four closing E-major chords that we may hear as triumphant but may just as easily sound ominous.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips)  |  Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  Mariss Jansons conducting the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos)

Reading: Tchaikovsky: The Final Years, 1885-1893, by David Brown (Norton)  |  Tchaikovsky Remembered, edited by Brown (Faber)  |  Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes, edited by Alexander Poznansky (Indiana University Press)  |  Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden (Bantam)