Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, op. 64

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            Tchaikovsky completed six symphonies during his lifetime, the last three of which have long been concert staples.  The three, while exhibiting both the tangible and intangible characteristics of the composer that endear him to music lovers everywhere, are each unique expressions of his musicianship and personality.  Symphony No. 4 (with good reason associated with “fate”) came out of an especially troubled time in his life with regard to his ill-starred (and short) marriage—among other factors was his attempted suicide.  Symphony No. 6 was, of course, his last one (he died of cholera nine days after its première), and its title bore the French equivalent of “pathos.”  And its tragic pianississimo ending truly evokes the finality of his great personal anguish.  So, where does that leave us with No. 5?

            In some ways, we find ourselves in a similar kettle of fish.  The sixth symphony was composed and premièred in 1888, when the composer was 48 years old, and it too--based upon the composer’s own testament--more or less is concerned with “fate.”  He was already in contemplation of death:  many close friends had recently died, he was in poor mental and physical health, and had made out his will in contemplation of his demise.   But the preoccupation on fate in the fifth symphony is perhaps not the hammering fate of the fourth symphony, but rather a more acquiescing acceptance of what Tchaikovsky called “providence.”  The first movement starts right out with the so-called fate motive, played by both clarinets, ominously down in their lowest register; this motive will be easily heard in all four movements, and is a strongly unifying element in the composition.  The movement proper begins with a dark march—with a characteristic Tchaikovskian stuttering syncopation--initiated by solo clarinet and bassoon, accompanied by pizzicato strings.  The whole movement centers around this theme, but there are others, most notably a winsome waltz-like theme.  Although the movement moves through a variety of intense, dramatic (read loud) utterances, it ends in soft darkness—just as it began.

            The second movement is perhaps the most well known of the four movements, owing to its use in a pop arrangement by Glenn Miller and others, shortly before World War II—luckily time has faded most of that particular memory.   The melody is primarily a solo for the principal horn, and a glorious, beautifully spun out affair it is.  A related idea for solo violin follows shortly.  The middle of the movement generates considerable interest from its vivid harmonic surprises, a new theme in the clarinet, and general sense of unrest and instability.   But then, the so-called fate motto from the first movement interrupts, and we’re back at a return to the lovely first theme, although with changed orchestration and a dramatic buildup of emotion before quietly subsiding.

            There are those who opine that no one equaled Tchaikovsky in walzes—even the Strausses—and I concur.  The third movement is a series of incredibly elegant waltzes that make you wish that we all still danced them.   But before they start, a soft, but ominous series of chords in the strings lures you into thinking that the dark mood of the ending of the first movement will prevail.  But a wonderful modulation brings us to the novel and beguiling key of D major.  The waltzes commence.  The middle of the movement provides some relief from the waltzes in the form of a short scherzo in duple meter, contrasting nicely with all the ONE-two-three of the waltz.  It’s a frenetic affair, not so much unlike the suggestion of little rodents scampering around when they should be gracefully waltzing.  The scampering continues for a while when the waltzes return, signaling the end of the movement—but not before the low clarinets menacingly interrupt for a moment with the motto that opens the whole symphony, and which we will hear in spades imminently in the last movement.

            A sure-fire spiritual narrative in art during the romantic period—or any period, for that matter—is the journey from darkness to light, from defeat to victory, and perhaps death to transfiguration.  Beethoven, Brahms, and other great composers wrote any number of works with this theme, and it is Tchaikovsky’s and ours in this symphony.  The long introduction to the last movement is based upon the motto theme of fate, but now opens in E major, the happy key of redemption.  But, victory cannot be won so easily, so the main movement returns to E minor to begin the battle, and Tchaikovsky works it out with a dramatic review of familiar materials, as we gradually find our way into the world of light.  The victory is hammered out in the motto of fate by stentorian unison brasses, and a tumultuous gallop to the end wraps up the triumph.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan