Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) – Symphony No. 5

Andante – Allegro con anima
Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
Valse (Allegro moderato)
Finale (Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace)

Tchaikovsky is undoubtedly one of Russia’s most frequently performed composers, and his fifth symphony is regarded as one of his most successful works. On April 15, 1888, adjacent to a conceptual sketch of the piece, he stated:

‘Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same,
before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.
Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, lamentations, reproaches against… XXX.
(II) Shall I throw myself into the embraces of Faith?’

There have been numerous discussions as to what ‘XXX’ stands for. It is believed that it refers to Tchaikovsky’s struggles with his sexuality. There appear to be three distinct characters in mind from this note: Fate, Providence and Faith.

Fate can be interpreted as his sexuality; Providence can be defined as “the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power.” The view of homosexuality as a serious sin possibly played a part in the choice of this word. Faith is the final distinct character. The use of faith is to put complete trust in something. The symphony shows a distinct storyline of whether Tchaikovsky should put his full Faith into his Fate. In this way, the symphony can almost be seen as an autobiography of his struggles with identity. One critic at the time, in fact, wrote: ‘If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.’

There is a singular theme repeated in each movement; this is first introduced by the clarinets in the opening moments. This motif unifies the symphony, and it represents the character of Fate. Symphony No.5 can be seen as a dance with fate, as Tchaikovsky decides if he should throw himself into “the embraces of Faith.” Furthermore, this theme bears resemblance to a melody from Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, which is set to the words “Do not turn to sorrow”; so, despite potential hardship and torment, there is an underlying message of hope. With that thought in mind, this character of Fate is introduced in a slow and pensive way. The first movement gains momentum and energy through the clarinet and bassoon, as they introduce the movement’s key theme. This melody has a distinct lilt, emphasising the lifelong dance with something Tchaikovsky can’t control.

The second movement contains one of Tchaikovsky’s most iconic motifs; the lyrical line played on the horn. This is known as one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest love themes. Fate interrupts the theme twice; a rude reminder of the aspect of his life that he cannot change.

The third movement is primarily a waltz. At this point in history, it was customary for the third movement to be a scherzo. By composing this movement as a waltz, Tchaikovsky emphasises the idea that he is dancing with Fate. Throughout the third and fourth movements, Fate seems to be tamed and is incorporated into its surroundings.

The finale can be seen, once again, as a dance – this time, a vigorous Russian dance. This movement begins with the Fate theme, similar to the first movement, but this time in a major key. Fate has disregarded Providence and has embraced Faith. The music has a distinct note of celebration and victory.

Ironically, not long after Tchaikovsky wrote the piece, he expressed his disdain for it, despite the positive reaction from the audience at its premiere:

‘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 colour, 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.’

It was not until later in his life that Tchaikovsky grew to appreciate the work. It features vivid orchestral colouring and delicate moments full of grace, as well as powerful dynamic outbursts. It is plain to see that, despite Tchaikovsky’s misgivings, he had a firm understanding of the orchestra’s potential. His use of colouration within the different instrumental families, his beautiful melodies, and his dynamic and harmonic contrasts, emphasise the theme of triumph over despair.

Copyright © Helena Maher 2020. All rights reserved.
This program note was written as part of the Words About Music program at the 2020 Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp

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