Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 5

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 45–50 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
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.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

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

The third movement is reminiscent of a 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)

When Tchaikovsky specialist Semyon Bychkov and the Concertgebouworkest come together, you know that a fantastic Tchaikovsky interpretation is going to happen:

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:

1 Quote about Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5

I think it is an unfulfilled finale. It is in E major, yet I feel that the fourth movement from the beginning to the apotheosis is the dance of evil. Now that sounds very simple, the idea of course is the victory of fate, but there is a conflict at the end. We don't know what Tchaikovsky decides. Should he continue composing? Should he die? This last movement reflects the conflicts of his life.

Conductor Andris Nelsons on the finale from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in conversation with BR-Klassik.

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