This Week in Music History: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony premieres (1888)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of a now-beloved work once described as “repulsive” by its composer: Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 5…

Tchaikovsky, 1888

Early critics of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, first performed under Tchaikovsky’s baton on 17 November 1888 in St Petersburg, reacted differently to the different movements. “Especially fine was the first,” wrote one critic, and the second movement was well received as well. But the finale repeatedly came in for criticism—including from Johannes Brahms, who met with Tchaikovsky before a performance in Hamburg. Tchaikovsky even started to believe some of the more negative assessments himself: “I concluded that this symphony is unsuccessful,” he wrote after conducting it in Prague. “There is something repulsive about it.”

It’s one of his most popular works today, though. And it seems a little strange to criticize certain movements independently, because the most distinctive thing about this symphony is just how well constructed it is as a whole. One key theme—the “Fate” theme, as it’s often called—recurs in each movement, drawing the whole work together. Here it is at its first appearance: at the very start of the work.

Here, the theme forms a slow introduction: a symphonic device familiar from the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven and many others. But the fact that it returns several times is unusual. In the first movement, it gives way to new material as the main Allegro section begins, but the “Fate” theme has already made its mark.

The slow second movement begins with a beautiful and justly famous melody for horn. But there’s a wealth of melodic invention in this movement, just as in the first, and it gradually builds to a huge climax—at which point, as you can hear above, the “Fate” theme returns. It marks the centerpoint of the movement.

A symphony’s third movement is conventionally a little more relaxed, and Tchaikovsky follows convention in writing a dancelike movement—though he chooses a waltz where a minuet would be more standard. But even in this airy, seemingly calm composition, “Fate” makes a subtle appearance in the closing stages, as you can hear towards the end of the extract above. No brash fanfare-like statement here, but a reminder all the same.

The finale, so unpopular at first, develops the “Fate” theme at length, and although Tchaikovsky uses other material as well, it’s this theme that dominates the movement. But whereas in earlier movements the theme seemed ominous or even sinister, here it’s woven into the musical score, in a major key: it’s part of a triumphal narrative which concludes in a blast of E major. The symphony is perhaps not so different to that other “Fate”-obsessed Fifth Symphony, the one by Beethoven.

So why did those first audiences dislike this ending? The traditional criticism is that it doesn’t ring true, that its note of optimism seems somehow hollow. But many a modern concert audience would disagree—and when the work is as carefully structured as it clearly is, there’s every reason to feel justified in enjoying this rousing, optimistic conclusion. Tchaikovsky changed his mind as early as just four months later: “I no longer have a bad opinion of the symphony, and like it once more,” he wrote in March 1889. “My earlier judgment was undeservedly harsh.”

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