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Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 5, 1920, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
When Tchaikovsky began work on his Fifth Symphony in June 1888, he reported that the music came only with great difficulty. Later, however, he said “inspiration seemed to come,” presumably in abundance since the work was completed in two months with a good deal of simultaneous work on his symphonic poem Hamlet. “Now that the symphony is nearing its end,” he wrote, “I regard it more objectively than at the height of my work on it, and I can say that it is, praise God, no worse than its predecessors. This knowledge is very sweet to me!”
But unlike those composers who can view their own work dispassionately – Rimsky-Korsakov was a fine example – Tchaikovsky found objectivity an elusive shadow. No sooner had he launched the work before the public than another bout of self-loathing overcame him. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote then, “that this symphony is a failure. There is something repellent about it, a patchiness, insincerity, and artificiality which the public instinctively recognizes. Am I done for already? Can I merely repeat and ring the changes on my earlier style? Last night I looked through my Fourth Symphony. What a difference! How much finer it is! This is very, very sad.” A year later he admitted that he had gotten to like the Fifth better, his confidence restored by Brahms’ approval of the first three movements.
Such indecision about his own work was just one facet of the profound insecurity as both man and artist from which Tchaikovsky suffered all his life. Indeed the theme of self-doubt is present in the Symphony itself, if we are to believe one of his notebooks where some thoughts on the meaning of the music are set out. “Complete resignation before Fate, or (which is the same thing) before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.” The motto theme, which sets the tone as an introduction to the first movement, must stand for the dismal workings of Providence, since the pervasive sound of the third degree of the minor scale (G in the key of E minor) and the somber color of two unison clarinets give the theme an overwhelmingly depressed character.
The theme injects a strongly emotional force every time it recurs. It provides a dark, slow introduction to the first movement’s Allegro, a clear sonata form, in which the theme seems to delineate the color and texture of the first subject, while the second subject explores a much warmer mode of passionate expression. The moods change with alarming suddenness, and after a number of intense climaxes the clarinets and bassoons draw the movement down to its gloomy close.
In the slow movement, which offers the horn one of its finest solos in symphonic literature, the motto theme twice marks the climax, the first time to clear the air for the return of the horn’s amorous melody, now transferred to the violins. The second occurrence surmounts one of Tchaikovsky’s most violent emotional paroxysms (marked ffff) and merely exhausts itself.
The third movement, a waltz, is pure ballet music, with some delicate orchestration. Escapism perhaps? The motto’s intrusion at the end scarcely seems relevant, yet in the last movement the motto plays a decisive role, and its rhythm alone sometimes threatens on a repeated note. It is eventually unveiled in the major key, but somehow without the sense of triumph which that might suggest, and it is the theme of the first movement’s Allegro, also transformed in the major, that has the last word.
— Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.