Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

by Max Derrickson

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky      (b Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, May 7, 1840; St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893)

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
1. Andante – Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile (con alcuna licenza)
3. Valse – Allegro moderato
4. Finale – Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies were steeped in folk tune, but his Fourth and Fifth began tackling some bigger questions.  It seems that the composer was gravitating toward his most intimate utterance through these two symphonies on the way to his Sixth – the one so full of foreboding and devastation.  But to most accurately describe the self expression in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, one must hearken back to the words of his contemporary, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “There is an indispensable measure of suffering even in the happiness of the Russian people, for without it, its happiness is incomplete.”  Such is the indescribable music of this masterpiece.  Sorrow and joy exist side by side in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

The Andante introduction in the first movement begins with a shadowy and brooding theme played by the clarinets and strings – a halting and disheveled sort of march – the first two bars of which Tchaikovsky called a “Fate” motto.  The motto itself, though at first gloomy, will be heard countless times throughout the Symphony
[. . .]
The path it takes is one of those great Tchaikovsky moments, when he manipulates a descending, tumbling fragment of the second theme and cascades it over several key changes.  It emerges, groaning, out of the musical depths and rises into a fanfare of a resplendent version of the Fate motto.  From the 21 year old who didn’t know one could change keys within a piece, a long road has been trod.  The ending section builds colossally, almost violently, but then dies away quietly.  If nothing else, the Russian Tchaikovsky was a master storyteller, and the first movement closes with the notion that there is much more to tell.

The second movement continues the tale somberly.  Its opening chords are drenched in passion and longing, and then it opens up to perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most exquisite melody played by the French horn.  How this theme can convey so much emotion is one of the great accomplishments in music – so full of yearning, speaking of a deeply felt vastness, so sorrowful and so joyful.
[. . .]

The third movement brings some release as Tchaikovsky, perhaps the greatest of all ballet composers, returns with a waltz of remarkable grace.  It, too, is sabotaged by the opening Fate motive, almost cruelly in the last bars, which prepare us for the finale.

The last chapter of the Symphony begins by restating the Fate motto, but in a major key, and its mood, at least briefly, is more heroic.  But the story is not complete,
[. . .]
This ending is a grand affair to be sure, but filled with spine-tingling moments and a rush to a last fanfare of the Fate motto that is at last, and gloriously, transformed into triumph.