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

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, in the district of Viatka
DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg
COMPOSED: Between May and August 26, 1888

WORLD PREMIERE: November 17, 1888. The composer conducted the premiere himself in Saint Petersburg

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: March 5, 1889. Theodore Thomas led a concert in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1914. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT— September 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 49 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Even Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was once new music, and controversial new music at that. The first extended commentary on it in English was written by William Foster Apthorp, who by day was on the Boston Symphony’s payroll as its program annotator and at night reviewed its concerts for the Boston Evening Transcript. As a critic, Apthorp was famous for his dislike of new music, no matter whether it came from Russia, France, or Germany, though it must be said that his attacks on Tchaikovsky elicited protests from his readers. As the Boston Symphony’s wordsmith, Apthorp had to pull in his horns. The Fifth Symphony came to Boston in October 1892 with the great Arthur Nikisch on the podium. Introducing it, Apthorp wrote that

Tchaikovsky is one of the leading composers, some think the leading composer, of the present Russian school. He is fond of emphasizing the peculiar character of Russian melody in his works, plans his compositions in general on a large scale, and delights in strong effects. He has been criticized for the occasionally excessive harshness of his harmony, for now and then descending to the trivial and tawdry in his ornamental figuration, and also for a tendency to develop comparatively insignificant material to inordinate length. But, in spite of the prevailing wild savagery of his music, its originality and the genuineness of its fire and sentiment are not to be denied.

“The general style of the orchestration,” Apthorp noted, “is essentially modern, and even ultra-modern.” Wearing his Evening Transcript hat, Apthorp was less cautious: “[The Fifth Symphony] is less untamed in spirit than the composer’s B-flat minor [Piano] Concerto, less recklessly harsh in its polyphonic writing, less indicative of the composer’s disposition to swear a theme’s way through a stone wall. . . . In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian Steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!”

Tchaikovsky’s own feelings about the Fifth blew hot and cold, as they did about so many of his works: “I am dreadfully anxious to prove not only to others, but also to myself, that I am not yet played out as a composer. . . . The beginning was difficult; now, however, inspiration seems to have come. . . . I have to squeeze it from my dulled brain. . . . It seems to me that I have not blundered, that it has turned out well.”

Ten years had gone by since the Fourth Symphony, ten years in which Tchaikovsky’s international reputation was consolidated. The Fourth had been the symphony of triumph over fate and was in that sense, admittedly, an imitation of the Beethoven Fifth. For Tchaikovsky’s own Fifth we have nothing as explicitly revealing as the correspondence in which he set out the program of the Fourth for his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. There is, however, a notebook page dated April 15, 1888, which is about a month before Tchaikovsky began work on his new symphony, and here he outlines a scenario for the first movement: “Intr[oduction]. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrut[able] predestination of Providence. Allegro. (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.”

This is not helpful. Furthermore, we have no idea whom or what Tchaikovsky meant by XXX. Some writers have suggested that it might be what he usually referred to in his diary as Z or THAT, his homosexuality, but in this context that makes little sense. To pursue the verbal plan as it appears in the notebook through the first movement as he finally composed it is fruitless. Clearly, though, the theme with which the clarinets in their lowest register begin the symphony has a function other than its musical one. It will recur as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, as an enervated ghost that approaches the languid dancers of the waltz, and—in a metamorphosis that is perhaps the symphony’s least convincing musical and expressive gesture—in majestic and blazing E major triumph.

Tchaikovsky’s wonderful gift of melody (Apthorp’s “peculiar [Russian] character” must refer to the way the tunes droop, which is not 1890s Boston at all), his delight in “strong effects” and his skill at bringing them off, his fire and sentiment—these need neither introduction nor advocacy. A word, though, about the orchestra. Rimsky-Korsakov, discussing Scheherazade in his memoirs, congratulates himself on the brilliance he has been able to achieve with an orchestra no larger than Glinka’s. Tchaikovsky, too, produces remarkable effect with remarkable economy. His orchestra is anything other than extravagant, but the brilliance of its fortissimo (very loud) is amazing.

THE MUSIC  Tchaikovsky begins the Fifth with a portentous introduction. The tempo is fairly slow, the colors (low clarinets and low strings) are dark. The theme, suggestive here of a funeral march, sticks easily in the memory. Let us call it the Fate theme. Its rhythm is distinctive enough to be recognizable by itself, and that will prove useful. The introduction gradually subsides, coming to a suspenseful halt.

When the main part of the first movement begins, the tempo is quicker and the theme is new; nonetheless, we hear a connection because the alternating chords of E minor and A minor in the first twelve measures are the very ones with which the Fate theme was harmonized. Clarinet and bassoon play the theme, a melancholy and graceful song.

Tchaikovsky boils this up to a fortississimo (the most loud) climax, then goes without break into a new, anguished theme for strings with characteristic little punctuation marks for the woodwinds. With these materials he builds a strong, highly energized movement, which, however, vanishes in utter darkness.

In 1939, Mack David, Mack Davis, and AndrĂ© Kostelanetz came out with a pop song called “Moon Love.” It had a great tune—by Tchaikovsky. It is the one you now hear the French horn play, better harmonized and with a better continuation. When he has built some grand paragraphs out of the horn melody and its various continuations, Tchaikovsky speeds up the music still more, at which point the clarinet introduces an entirely new and wistful phrase, which is picked up and carried further by the bassoon and then the several string sections. The spinning out of this idea is brutally interrupted by the Fate theme. The music stops in shocked silence. Great pizzicato chords restore order, the violins take up the horn melody, which other instruments decorate richly. Once again, there is a great cresting, and once again the Fate theme intervenes. This time there is no real recovery. With a final appearance of what was originally the oboe’s continuation of the horn melody, the movement sinks to an exhausted close. “Resignation before Fate”?

Functioning in the place of a scherzo, Tchaikovsky gives us a graceful, somewhat melancholic waltz. Varied and inventive interludes separate the returns of the initial melody, and just before the end the Fate theme ghosts softly over the stage.

The Finale begins with the Fate theme, but heard now in a quietly sonorous E major. This opening corresponds to the introduction of the first movement. This time, though, the increase in tempo is greater, and the new theme is possessed by an almost violent energy. A highly charged sonata form movement unfolds. Toward the end of the recapitulation, Fate reappears, now just as a rhythm. This leads to an exciting and suspenseful buildup, whose tensions are resolved when the Fate theme marches forward in its most triumphant form—in major, fortissimo, broad, majestic. The moment of suspense just before this grand arrival has turned out to be a famous audience trap. People who haven’t really been listening but have noticed that the music has stopped are liable to begin their applause at this point. After the Fate theme has made its splendid entrance, the music moves forward into a headlong Presto, broadening again for the rousing final pages.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and

More About the Music
Recordings: Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Exton)  |  Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips)  |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca) 

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)

Online:  Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS explore the composer and his world in Tchaikovsky and the Fourth Symphony, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Available at and on iTunes and Amazon

(May 2017)