Countless works have been composed musically representing ad astra per aspera (“through hardships to the stars”); oddly enough, a number of the most popular of these are symphonies numbered 5. Mahler’s epic Fifth takes us from the darkness of the opening funeral march in C# minor to the radiant Rondo-Finale in D major; Shostakovich’s immensely popular Fifth plunges through 45 minutes of brooding intensity and builds to a crushingly optimistic climax in C major (even if it seems like a Stalinist ventriloquist act); Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony goes from a first movement that sounds like a march to the Gates of Hell to a luminous orchestral shower of A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Of course, the gold standard for this musical trajectory (and an awful lot of other things, too) is the Fifth of Beethoven. But no symphony makes it quite as obvious as Tschaikovsky’s magical Fifth.
Prior to the composition of the Fifth, Tschaikovsky wondered if he might have been tapped out as a writer. Having failed to achieve success with an orchestral work in almost ten years (the Violin Concerto of 1878) and in the midst of a relative silence since the unsuccessful Manfred Symphony three years prior, he confided in his brother, “To speak frankly, I feel as yet no impulse for creative work. What does this mean? Have I written myself out? No ideas, no inclination! Still, I am hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.” Perhaps writing the letter was cathartic. Perhaps Tschaikovsky was a drama queen. Either way, he had the entire symphony sketched six weeks later. By the time he had completed the orchestration, in August 1888, Tschaikovsky seemed content enough to label the symphony a success, although “I have not blundered; it has turned out well” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement (sort of the functional equivalent of a doctor telling you he didn’t amputate the wrong leg). The “unbridled enthusiasm” wouldn’t last, though. Upon the premiere of the new work in St. Petersburg, Tschaikovsky reversed course and deemed it a failure, in spite of a tremendous reception from the audience. It was not until a performance several months later in Hamburg (a performance that Brahms attended) that Tschaikovsky’s confidence was restored, and his estimation of the symphony was again positive (with many caveats, I’m sure).
The Fifth Symphony does not have an explicit program, but excerpts from some of Tschaikovsky’s notebooks give the impression that it is a sort of sister symphony to the Fourth, with both works examining man’s relationship to Fate. In the Fourth, Fate is announced right off the bat, and He seems generally pissed off and out to crush man’s happiness in any way He can. In the Fifth, Fate is more of a spiritual element that puts obstacles in man’s path for his own benefit. Several Tschaikovsky biographers have posited that this mini-obsession with Fate is connected to Tschaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality, which he had come to better terms with by 1888. If that is the case, could the Fifth perhaps be his musical statement of acceptance of who he was? The cryptic passages in his notebooks don’t really make much sense in that context relative to the symphony, but either way, it’s the powerful statement of a composer at the height of his powers. Tschaikovsky’s gifts for melody, his ability to generate drama and passion, lush orchestration skills, and command of symphonic structure are on full display in this symphony.
We meet Fate immediately, in a tranquil yet strangely ominous theme sounded in the clarinets with help from the low strings that glides along for the better part of three minutes. The movement proper begins with the clarinets picking up the bassoons for a lilting waltz-like theme that may or may not be a Polish folk song or a lick from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. The music builds in intensity as it scurries through the orchestra, culminating in a rising sequence that leads into a life-altering theme in the strings that serves as the beginning of the second theme group, ultra-sensuous and lyrical. A more-or-less traditional sonata form progresses through a stirring development and recapitulation, before a brief coda that ends in the lowest reaches of the orchestra with the basses and bassoons reaffirming our subservience to Providence in E minor.
The Andante cantabile second movement is a peaceful and comfortable response to the first movement’s intensity. After a hushed chorale in the low strings, Tschaikovsky presents one of his most famous melodies, the broad and poetic song intoned by the solo horn that over-analyzers everywhere claimed John Denver used when writing Annie’s Song. This theme works its way into the cellos before the full orchestra gloriously illuminates the melody. The music transitions seamlessly into the second section of the movement, with a characteristically Tschaikovsky-ish melody in the winds that floats through the ensemble until a violent statement of the Fate theme stops everything in its tracks. The peaceful mood is restored; the melody in the strings is answered by a gorgeous countermelody in the winds and the music generates momentum into a passionate outcry that is overwhelming in its beauty and vehemence. But Fate again sounds its call of all-consuming dominance, and the final appearance of the melody sounds almost questioning in tone, seeming to ask if it’s OK to feel peace.
Movement three is a gently flowing waltz that sounds like it could easily have come from one of Tschaikovsky’s great ballet scores; the melody was, in fact, inspired by a street song Tschaikovsky encountered in his travels in Italy. The second subject is a skittering sixteenth-note interplay between strings and winds, and it leads into a modified restatement of the waltz. In the coda, the Fate theme glides in like a police patrol passing by a fraternity house, threatening to undermine any and all revelry.
The Finale commences with a full-throated statement of the Fate theme in the strings…in E major, transforming the melody from foreboding doom to august nobility. The Allegro vivace returns us to E minor, rushing forward with manic vitality in a sonata form with two distinct themes, one a march in the strings that moves with the heaviness of the Russian soul, the other a rapid-fire dialogue dominated by the winds that seems almost tentative in comparison. The music boils in a cauldron of energy until it explodes in a frantic transitional episode that employs the rhythm of the Fate motive to great effect, arriving at a glistening B major, then stopping to catch its breath.
What follows is a coda in which the Fate theme has been completely reinvented, trudging forward in a regal processional that would be perfect for a high school graduation ceremony or visiting foreign dignitary. Any sense of impending disaster at Fate’s hand is gone, and all that is left is triumph and pomp, climaxing in a triple-forte orgasm of majesty in the trumpets. All that awaits is a mad dash to the finish line, but this too is interrupted by an exultant shout in the brass: our slinky theme from the opening movement in all the punishing glory it’s capable of. The symphony ends in a sea of E major, quadruple-forte, Fate accepted. At quadruple-forte, some might say Fate vanquished.