Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony program notes

Thursday, August 19, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Composed: 1888
Instrumentation: 3 flutes with 3rd doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (doubled), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani , and strings

When Tchaikovsky began work on his Fifth Symphony in 1888, it had been over 10 years since the completion of his Fourth. While the Fourth had emerged out of personal crisis (Tchaikovsky’s disastrous sham marriage and his subsequent mental collapse), the Fifth came at a time of professional challenge for the composer. Ostensibly at the height of his career, Tchaikovsky had fears that his creative inspiration was drying up. In a letter from June 10, he confessed to his patron and confidante Nadezhda von Meck:

I’m terribly anxious to prove not only to others but also to myself that I’m not yet played out. I often have doubts about myself, and ask myself, hasn’t the time now come to stop, haven’t I always overstrained my imagination too much, hasn’t the source dried up?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you might be remembering Tchaikovsky’s similar expressions of anxiety over an absence of creative spark during the composition of his 1890 sextet, Souvenir de Florence, which was performed earlier this summer. As in that case, his “composer’s block” dissipated rapidly. By the end of August, Tchaikovsky had completed the score of the new symphony and even expressed some tentative pride in his accomplishment.

After the initial performances, though, his insecurities were fed by some negative reviews (despite an enthusiastic audience reception). The critics—primed by Tchaikovsky’s previous two symphonies, which had explicit extra-musical programs attached to them—seemed to judge the work against their own narrative interpretations. These criticisms fundamentally misconstrued a piece that was designed (at least in part) to explore the possibilities of an evolving musical motto as a structural symphonic force. Tchaikovsky took the condemnations to heart, however, and declared the symphony “a failure…repellent, superfluous, patchy, and insincere,” rekindling his growing fears of his eroding skills. However, his monumental Sixth Symphony lay ahead of him, and the passionate response of the concert-going public for the past 120 years has reduced the initial harsh assessment of the Fifth to an amusing historical sidebar.

Although not the most complex opening symphonic movement in Tchaikovsky’s output, the first movement is arguably the richest in theme and melody. Tchaikovsky skirts the line between march and dance with his material here. There are moments of dark contemplation (as in the introductory clarinet melody and the closing, fading march), childlike joy (in the swirling, syncopated violin-led dance), and exuberant triumph (in the culmination of the main theme). Keep the opening clarinet melody (which Tchaikovsky considered to represent “complete resignation before Fate”) in your ear; it is the “motto” theme that will return in each subsequent movement, taking on a completely different character by the end.

The beautifully lyrical second movement is marked con alcuna licenza, or “with some license,” indicating that a certain freedom in tempo may be exercised to better shape the sustained melodies, the first being introduced by a soulful solo horn. A quicker-moving middle section leads to a more animated revisitation of the original themes, with a surprisingly violent interjection of the motto theme from the first movement.

Right from the start, Tchaikovsky lets us know that the third movement won’t be an ordinary waltz. Rather than emphasizing the first of the three beats of each measure as is typical in the waltz, the accompaniment completely rests on these beats. Later, a bassoon melody enters and eventually settles into an extended syncopation, undermining the three-beat feel altogether. At the very end of the movement, in the clarinets and bassoon, we get a reminder of the “resignation before Fate” motto theme from the first movement in preparation for its grand transformation.

The Finale immediately picks up on the hint and gives us a completely recast version of the motto theme, now in a majestic major key. The dramatic, bold gestures that pervade this movement culminate in a final triumphant, full-voiced return of this transformed march theme, a rousing conclusion to Tchaikovsky’s moving work.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi