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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

50 minutes

Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed his Symphony No. 5 during the summer of 1885. During this period, Tchaikovsky also worked on a “Fantasy-Overture,” based upon William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Tchaikovsky completed his Fifth Symphony on August 26.  He put the finishing touches on the Hamlet “Fantasy-Overture” on October 19.  Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 5 in St. Petersburg on November 17, 1888

By Tchaikovsky’s own admission, both the Fourth and his final Symphony, the Sixth, feature programmatic elements.  Tchaikovsky insisted that his Fifth Symphony did not contain a program.  However, the progression of the Symphony No. 5—with its presentation, frequent reappearance, and dramatic metamorphosis of a central leitmotif—certainly seems to hint at some extra-musical significance.  And among Tchaikovsky’s sketches for the Fifth are words from the composer suggesting the Symphony depicts a confrontation with Fate.

If it is true that Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 portrays a struggle with Fate, the outcome seems far more positive than that depicted in the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies.  But such considerations are secondary to the glorious music of this gripping and unforgettable symphonic journey.

The Symphony opens with a slow-tempo introduction (Andante).  The clarinets present an ominous theme that will appear as the central leitmotif in each of the Symphony’s four movements.  The theme soon becomes the basis for the opening melody of the ensuing Allegro con anima.  The slow-tempo second movement (Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza) features a radiant outpouring of melody, twice interrupted by savage outbursts of the central leitmotif.  The third movement Waltz (Valse. Allegro moderato), in A—B—A form, concludes with a rather insinuating repetition of the central leitmotif, capped by six fortissimo chords.  The Finale opens with a slow-tempo introduction (Andante maestoso), with the central leitmotif transformed to the major key.  After a protracted struggle and dramatic pause, the leitmotif returns for the last time—now cast as a triumphal march (Moderato assai e molto maestoso).

Notes by Ken Meltzer © 2020