Program Notes


BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, district of Viatka, Russia

DIED: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64 

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. Tchaikovsky made a habit of keeping 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 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. . . .”

His correspondence on the subject brims with allusions to the emotional background to this piece, which involved resignation to fate, the designs of providence, murmurs of doubt, and similarly dark thoughts.

Critics blasted the symphony at its premiere, due in part to the composer’s limited skill on the podium; and yet the audience was enthusiastic. Tchaikovsky, true to type, decided the critics must be right. 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 which 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 considerable self-awareness; 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). 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.

“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

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(July 2019)

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