Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64 (1888)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
- Andante—Allegro con Anima
- Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
- Valse: Allegro moderato
- Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace
From 1877 to 1890, under the patronage of the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky was free to devote himself entirely to composition. Financially secure, he nevertheless found himself on the horns of an artistic dilemma. Fatalistic and highly-strung, Tchaikovsky naturally inclined to the Romantic ideology of expressing the artist’s inner turmoil. Consequently, his music stressed the “emotional” at the expense of the “formal”. Yet he held the common view of the Symphony as the ultimate vehicle for a composer’s loftiest statements. His problem was that he found conventional symphonic structure incompatible with his expressive intents, fretting about “having to end [his] days without having written anything perfect in form”. How could he cage this beast without also drawing its teeth?
Tchaikovsky, in common with most Russians, had a problem regarding symphonic argument, namely that his musical culture was inherently short-winded – based on the repetitive use of short cells. The art of binding these into cohesive arguments, even over short spans, did not come naturally. In the Fourth Symphony (1878), he resolved the difficulty of large-scale structure through the use of an explicit programme, which lent a philosophical “scaffolding” on which to build the argument. This had provided a neat idea for “closing” the structure, by requiring the first movement’s “fate” motif to be dramatically recalled just before the finale’s coda.
Ten years later, he took a major step forward in the Fifth Symphony, in which he elaborated this device into a fully-fledged “motto” subject, incorporated into all four movements. But it was no panacea – there was still the problem of ensuring that each succeeding paragraph grew naturally out of its predecessor. This he resolved brilliantly by simply stirring in more themes, increasing the potential for development. There are still some characteristic “seams”, but these occur far less frequently, and now purely for dramatic effect. Significantly, although this music is as intensely dramatic as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote, there is not the slightest trace of a declared programme.
The first movement begins with a lengthy slow introduction, entering darkly on the clarinet and introducing the motto subject that recurs throughout the symphony. In the following passages, no fewer than five further themes are introduced, providing rich material for development. Starting with the famous horn theme, the second movement progressively builds to a thunderous climax of the motto theme, only to die away like wistful dreaming. The Valse is a cheerful dance in ternary form, concluding with a brief coda in which the motto reappears. The motto immediately rises to prominence at the start of the last movement and propels the symphony via a tumultuous development section to a dramatic climax.