Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 45–50 Minutes
Time of Creation: 1888
World Premiere: November 17, 1888 (Saint Petersburg)
Table of Contents
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in 5 Sentences
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was written in a special phase of his life: actually, after his 4th Symphony, he had already felt as if he could compose nothing more, but then, 10 years after the 4th Symphony, he wrote Symphony No. 5 within a few weeks. Symphony No. 5, which is one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works today, thus stands between Tchaikovsky’s preliminary farewell work (Symphony No. 4) and his actual farewell work (Symphony No. 6). The work is often related to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which bears the controversial nickname “Fate Symphony.” Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 also features a motif known as the “fate motif,” which recurs throughout the symphony.
4 Highlights from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5
Highlight 1: "Fate Motif"
I can’t help but always hear the bone-chilling cold of Russian winter at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Be that as it may, the term “fate motif” for this beginning, which is played by two clarinets, has in any case become established in music history:
Highlight 2: famous horn solo
The second movement is the great hour of the solo horn: here is one of the most famous horn solos in orchestral literature. Enjoy it here in the interpretation of Laurens Woudenberg, one of the best horn players in the world:
Highlight 3: calm waltz
Highlight 4: transformed "fate motive" at the end
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 ends with a solemn finale. Do you recognize the motif that is played here? It’s the “fate motif” from the beginning of the work (see “Highlight 1”), but this time bright and positive:
3 Questions and Answers about Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5
Question 1: Who conducted the premiere of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony?
Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere of his 5th Symphony.
Question 2: To whom did Tchaikovsky dedicate his Symphony No. 5?
Tchaikovsky dedicated his Symphony No. 5 to the German music teacher, music critic and music writer Theodor Avé-Lallemant.
Question 3: Is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 program music?
There are statements by Tchaikovsky about the program of Symphony No. 5. For example, he described the first movement with the words “doubts, complaints, reproaches.” According to Tchaikovsky, there is a “ray of light” in the second movement. Since the “fate motif” is “reversed” in the course of the work from the somber beginning to the radiant conclusion, associations with the scheme “per aspera ad astra” (as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5) suggest themselves. It should be noted here, however, that Tchaikovsky himself described the finale of his 5th Symphony as unsuccessful.
2 Recommended Recordings of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5
Recording 1: Concertgebouworkest, Semyon Bychkov (live, 2020)
Recording 2: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cristian Măcelaru (live, 2022)
It may sound confusing (and I’ll be sure to elaborate elsewhere), but sometimes a conductor is at his best when he does nothing. Well, “nothing” isn’t quite the right word either. It’s more about an attentive “letting play”, a “giving space” to the orchestral musicians. By the way, Richard Strauss was a master of this technique.
Today, Cristian Măcelaru does that particularly well – he gives the musicians of the WDR Symphony Orchestra the space to unfold in just the right places, resulting in a convincing interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony: