In researching a little for this post, I discovered that Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor is not universally beloved. Shocking, but true: some critics find the finale “insincere and crude”. Well, really. While I’ve had issues with a number of Tchaikovsky’s works over the years, I’ve never had any issue with the Symphony No. 5. I’ve loved it since I first heard it, in a televised New York Philharmonic performance sometime in the late 1980s. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is one of my “signpost” works: it hits home for me on nearly every level, touching nearly all the emotions along the way. It broods, it battles, and it struggles; it sings and it waltzes and it dances — and finally, in the end, it triumphs. Of all the symphonies I have heard, I can think of only one other that touches so many ranges of feeling. (Longtime readers almost certainly know which one that is, and readers who don’t…well, we haven’t got there yet.)
The Fifth, even moreso than the Fourth, makes use of a cyclical structure in which all four movements are tied together by a recurring theme. We hear this theme immediately, in the first movement’s opening bars; this theme is often called the “Fate” theme, and indeed, the work is sometimes said to have an “underlying program” involving some sort of triumph over fate or some such thing. Tchaikovsky himself indicated something of a programmatic aspect to the work early on, but in its finished form the symphony has no specific program as such. Still, the music is highly emotive and dramatic, as befits a composer who never wrote a work that was not dramatic in some fashion.
That “Fate” theme is always recognizable throughout the symphony, each time it appears, and it is heard in a number of different guises and characters. We first encounter it in its brooding mood, before the first movement gives way to a march theme that partially broods but also partially seems to approach a dance-like character. The mood is almost of a folk dance or march, but there is still a feeling of something larger going on under the surface. (And remember that march theme, when it starts: it will return later on.)
In the second movement, we reach the emotional heart of the symphony. This is the slow movement, and what a grand movement it is: meditative and song-like, with multiple themes that wind into and out of each other until the whole thing feels like it’s going to burst (with a massive quotation of the “Fate” theme in the middle). The movement begins with a sequence of soft chords which lead into the first them, played on a solo horn in what I have to assume is one of the “dream works” of every horn player. This movement is one of the most perfect symphonic movements I know.
The third movement, about half as long as the movements that surround it, feels like a small respite in the midst of some very huge emotions being expressed in the rest of the work. It brings us several waltz-like themes that intermingle with each other, at one point taking on the feel of an actual scherzo, before concluding with a triple-meter statement of the “Fate” theme. Tchaikovsky does some interesting things with the rhythms throughout the movement, with syncopations and unexpected turns of musical phrase. Even so, this waltz is both elegant and somewhat melancholy, right to the very end, when we encounter the Fate theme again.
And then the finale begins, with the Fate theme again — but this time it is in a major key, played in stately fashion. The feeling is almost one of optimism. Optimism! From Tchaikovsky! Surely we’re mistaken…and indeed, after a lengthy introduction involving the Fate theme, we launch into the “meat” of the finale, which is stormy and dramatic and at times even almost violent sounding. But even through all that there are moments that feel as if optimism is trying to break through. As much as I don’t like resorting to visual metaphors in describing music, this movement is rather like one of those afternoons in late summer or early fall when a series of thunderstorms rolls through, one after the other, and in between are moments of sporadic sunshine with breaks in the clouds through which the brilliant blue sky can be seen. The tension mounts and mounts throughout this movement, until it all finally culminates in a final crashing chord — or what feels like a final crashing chord, if you haven’t been paying attention (and audiences have actually been known to start applauding what they assume to be the symphony’s concluding moment at this point) — and then, after a brief silence, nothing but pure triumph, with our “Fate” theme blazing forth, backed by heroic trumpet calls before being fully taken up by the brass itself. Then, at the last, there is one last stormy passage before the symphony’s last bit of Tchaikovskian thunder: a blazing call-and-answer between the trumpets and the horns that actually quotes the march theme from all the way back in the first movement.
The symphony, as a form, can be the most epic of musical forms (other than pure opera), and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is a supreme example of this. A good performance of it always leaves me breathless and satisfied. It’s one of those works of art that gives me the sensation of having been afforded a glimpse, however brief, behind the curtains of this universe into the realm of the truly majestic and beautiful.
But now, you probably want to actually hear the Symphony No. 5, so here it is! And I’m doing something different this time out: I’m featuring two performances. The first performance is from a concert given at London’s Proms (and God, how I want to go to Proms someday!) by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Han-na Chang. I had never heard the QPO before I heard this performance, and in doing a little reading, I learned that the QPO is less than ten years old as of this writing (their inaugural concert was in 2008), and they focus especially on the music of Middle Eastern composers, which sounds fascinating to me. There was an unfortunate story surrounding this particular concert, though: having been recently named the QPO’s music director, Han-na Chang led the orchestra in this, the group’s first ever performance at Proms — and then, citing difficulties with management, she resigned the very next day, while the QPO was still on tour. Nevertheless, the QPO’s Proms performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is quite a good one.
Next, though, we have a performance that is nearly transcendent. Leonard Bernstein was made to conduct works like this, with his famous passionate podium manner that sometimes made it seem as if he was about to levitate into the air above the orchestra. This performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it was recorded over 40 years ago, at Tanglewood (the BSO’s summer home, in Western Massachusetts). The sound isn’t quite up to modern standards here, but so what? The fire and drama of the music are still luminous.
Next week we wrap up Tchaikovsky.