How is one to put into words those indeterminate feelings that engulf one during the composition of an instrumental work? It is a purely lyrical process, the outpourings of a soul marked by the vicissitudes of life but destined by its very nature to express itself in music.” Tchaikovsky wrote that in 1878, after the completion of his fourth symphony, in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda Von Meck, the widow of an industrialist. Her generosity enabled him to devote himself entirely to composition. In the letter, Tchaikovsky has more to say about the vicissitudes of life, “This is fate, that inexorable force; it is inescapable and invincible. There is no other course but to submit and to lament in vain.”
He was convinced that this idea of fate or providence was crucial and that it was beyond the powers of mere mortals to do anything about it. This conviction is reflected in his music, notably in his symphonic works. For Tchaikovsky, music was not just the arrangement of notes on the page; it was the language of emotion, the mirror of his own feelings.
Eleven years later Tchaikovsky composed his fifth symphony. By then he was Russia’s most prominent composer at home and abroad. Again, the idea of fate ran through the whole work. He noted, “Introduction: complete surrender to fate or—and this is the same thing—to the inscrutable decrees of providence.”
Tchaikovsky was highly sensitive. Outwardly, the impression he made was balanced and self-controlled, but in reality he was very insecure; an unstable, tormented personality. He was prey to dire visions and nightmares and his diary is full of astonishing and distressing disclosures about the psychological agonies he went through. He wrote to Nadezhda Von Meck expressing his fear that he was “written out”, but he completed the fifth symphony within the space of three months. Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance himself on the fifth of November, 1888, in St. Petersburg. His brother, Modeste, was present.
After the symphony Pyotr Ilyich received a rapturous applause. The orchestra played three flourishes for him and he was presented with flowers. But despite its great success with the audience, many critics found fault with the new symphony. But by no means all of them. After the first German performance five months later, the Hamburg reviewer Josef Zitaud, wrote, “The E-minor symphony can rightly be hailed as one of the most significant symphonic works of the age.” Today, Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth” is among the most famous symphonies ever written.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on the 7th of May, 1840, in a small mining town west of the Urals called Votkinsk. His mother, Alexandra Andreyevna, played the piano and introduced her son to the world of music. The highly sensitive boy responded with passionate interest. Though his musical gifts were encouraged by his parents, the lowly social standing of professional musicians meant they never seriously contemplated a musical career for him. At the age of ten he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, which he left nine years later to take up a junior post in the Ministry of Justice. He described himself as “a poor civil servant”.
Finally, in 1862, he enrolled at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music established by Anton Rubenstein. Rubenstein persuaded him to devote himself entirely to music. In a letter to his sister, Tchaikovsky says, “This is my vocation and I must follow it. Whether I become a great composer or a poor music teacher is immaterial. At all events my conscience will be clear and I shall no longer have any cause to complain about my lot.”
After successfully completing his studies in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky spent twelve years teaching music theory at the new conservatory in Moscow. His first four symphonies and many other works date from this period, so it was productive for him as a composer, but it was also a time of distress and unrest. Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that was a social stigma. To avoid the inevitable ostracism associated with it, he resolved to marry Antonina Miliukova, a woman he hardly knew. The marriage was a disaster. Tchaikovsky suffered a complete nervous breakdown and tried to kill himself. After separating from his wife in 1878, Tchaikovsky continued as an extremely successful freelance composer. The vicissitudes he had been through strengthened his firm belief in the force of destiny.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding his early death at the age of 53 have given rise to a great deal of speculation. We know that he drank a glass of unboiled water in a restaurant in St. Petersburg when cholera was raging in the city. Some believe that he did this intentionally.
Igor Stravinsky, a great admirer of Tchaikovsky, said this about his countryman, “Tchaikovsky had a powerful sense of melody. It is the centre of gravity in all his symphonies, operas and ballets. There is no doubt that he was an inspired creator of melody and that is a rare and precious gift.”
The beginning of the second movement takes us into an entirely different world. With quiet piano-pianissimo chords in the lower strings, it’s a very gentle introduction. Then comes a cantilena on the horn; this is the main theme. The movement is marked “Andante Cantabile con alcuna licenza”, a songful andante with a degree of license. This is an allusion to the licenza of operatic arias, allowing the singer to modify the tempo at his or her discretion.
The horn cantilena is followed by an oboe theme that Tchaikovsky refers to in his sketches as “a ray of light”. Both these themes culminate in passionate climaxes, which, however, subside again almost as soon as they appear.
If you think of the symphony in terms of a novel, I would say that this is an idyllic episode. In fact, I think you could even call it a love scene. It opens as a dialogue between the horn melody and the oboe theme. In the central section you have constant give and take between different instruments or groups of instruments. Then there’s the indication “Con desiderio e passione”, which is very unusual.
The central section introduces a new theme that builds to a forte-fortissimo climax. At this point the full orchestra hammers out the “fate” theme. After a general pause, the recapitulation sets in. Again, the two main themes are developed into a passionate climax. The “fate” theme intrudes once more before the coda brings the movement to a melancholy close built around the second theme.