Skip to page content

Composed: 1888
Length: c. 47 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

    “I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions....
    I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.”

Tchaikovsky’s deeply felt nationalistic sentiments bound him closely to his contemporaries in the twilight of Czarist Russia. Yet – ironically – his musical expression of the “national element” placed him at the center of a bitter debate. While the central European musical world in the late 19th century argued over the relative merits of Wagner and Brahms, Russian musical society was marked by hostility between an amateur group of nationalists, the “Mighty Handful,” and conservatives such as Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, who wanted Russian music to reflect European techniques and standards.

Though he drew inspiration from Russia’s rich vein of folk music, Tchaikovsky embraced his European training and rejected the attitudes of the nationalists as simplistic: “The young Petersburg composers are very gifted but they are all impregnated with the most horrible presumptuousness and a purely amateur conviction of their superiority over all other musicians in the universe,” he once grumbled. But shortly after the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in November of 1888, he wrote to his brother: “On Saturday I took part in a Russian Symphony concert. I am very glad that I could prove, in public, that I do not belong to any particular party.”

The public dimension was one to which Tchaikovsky was very sensitive; as the country’s foremost composer, and as a conductor with an international reputation, Tchaikovsky was closely scrutinized. In an 1882 letter to a Russian critic he argued: “It is not important that European audiences applauded me but that all Russian music and Russian art were received with enthusiasm in my person. The Russians ought to know that a Russian musician has held the banner of our art high in the big European centers.”

Composed shortly after a long European tour, the Fifth Symphony is typical of the artistic balance Tchaikovsky struck; it is not explicitly nationalistic, but a distinctively Russian flavor pervades many of the themes.

There is also a related, but deeper, artistic issue in the work. As Leon Plantinga points out, Tchaikovsky’s personal approach to musical meaning often conflicted with the strictures of his formal training: “He struggled ceaselessly with the opposed demands of formal traditions he had learned in the conservatory and his own predilection for an emotional and expressive progression of events corresponding to an unspoken program.”

The idea of an “unspoken program” was certainly in the composer’s mind as he sat down to compose this symphony; in the spring of 1888 he noted a possible approach: “Intr[oduction]. Complete resignation before Fate – or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence.” Although he eventually dropped the specific programmatic references, it is clear that this symphony projects some kind of dramatic significance. The broad outlines are made clear by a recurring idea that has over the years adopted the composer’s nomenclature and become known as the “fate” motive; its original ominous character undergoes various metamorphoses, emerging triumphant in the score’s concluding pages.

Low strings and woodwinds introduce the fate motive at the opening; it is followed by a theme reminiscent of a Slavic folk tune. The movement presents a wealth of themes, and even the development presents material not previously introduced.

The second movement’s luscious main theme was adapted for a popular love song; Tchaikovsky’s skillful orchestration, however, lifts the mood from sentimentality to high Romanticism. The movement’s principal melody is presented in a memorable solo by the horn, followed by other appealing woodwind solos.

The third movement is the most distinctive, a graceful waltz in which Tchaikovsky again exploits a wide range of instrumental color.

The finale brings the emotional drama of the symphony to a climax. After opening with the fate motive, Tchaikovsky turns to the movement’s militant main subject; the tension mounts (one New York critic referred to “slaughter, dire and bloody... across the storm-driven score”) until a newly affirmative version of the fate motive bursts forth in the magnificent final moments.

— Susan Key