Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 5 in E minor

Tchaikovsky composed his fifth symphony in 1888 and it was first performed on 17th November at St. Petersburg where he conducted it himself. It is generally considered to be the most attractive of his major works. When he first began writing it Tchaikovsky was suffering from deep depression and thought he was “written out of ideas”. However, he had just moved to the countryside and was in a much more relaxed state of mind, enjoying the peace and quiet and gaining new found pleasure from his garden. This symphony reflects all the violent and conflicting emotions Tchaikovsky was experiencing at the time of its composition.

The symphony is written in conventional four movement form. Each movement is united by the appearance of a short motto theme or idée fixe supposedly typifying fate. The idée fixe is a short eight bar melody which leads twice to the sigh of a sinking figure and forms one of the best known themes in the whole range of symphonic music.

Andante – Allegro con anima

In the opening Andante the motto theme is heard for the first time played on the lowest notes of the clarinet over a string accompaniment. For the Allegro con anima the time changes to 6/8 and the first subject is announced on the clarinet and bassoon. It is a lively tune tinged with melancholy of a typically Slavonic flavour. There is a lengthy exposition after which the second subject surges passionately from the strings expressing Tchaikovsky’s feelings of despair and working up to a fff climax. The main subject dominates the development section and is heard again played quietly on the bassoon in the recapitulation after which the movement ends peacefully.

Andante Cantabile, con alcuna licenza

This movement is written in the key of D major and is remarkable for its constant changes of time. It opens with a beautiful melody for the horn framed by passages for strings only. The melody is continued in the wind section where the oboe joins in followed by solos on the clarinet and bassoon. The peaceful mood is then disturbed briefly by the return of the motto theme and the mood becomes darker. A similar device occurs in the recapitulation although the movement eventually closes in a tranquil mood with a coda based on the second subject.

Valse (Allegro moderato)

The composer is at his happiest in this movement. It is a charming and elegant waltz with some excellent orchestral writing. The melody begins gently in the violins and is then taken up by other instruments. With its memorable, lilting tune this has become one of Tchaikovsky’s best known dance movements. The trio is more animated with a constant succession of spiccato semiquaver figures played by the strings. The motto theme reappears at the end in the distance on the clarinets and bassoons before the movement closes with the return of the Waltz theme.

Finale (Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace)

This movement opens with the motto theme played now in the major key. This has the effect of losing the menacing mood created by the same theme in the minor key and creating a feeling of jubilation where the composer feels that perhaps he is not all played out after all. The Allegro vivace has all the characteristics of a Russian dance rather than the formal characteristics of symphonic form. Themes from the other movements reappear in wild confusion and particularly notable is the reappearance of the beautiful second subject from the slow movement as well as the motto theme. The symphony ends with an air of magnificent splendour.