Shortly after his return to Russia from the first international tour Tchaikovsky set to work on his Fifth Symphony, in E minor. It was written in about two months, during the summer of 1888. For some time the composer had been brooding over the possibility that his inspiration had dried up and that it was time for him to quit. He worked hard on his symphony to prove to himself that his own fears were groundless. The first performance of the work left him more despondent than ever. When he conducted it in St. Petersburg later that year, and in Prague, it fell flat. ‘It is a failure,’ he wrote to his confidante. ‘There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated idea of colour, some insincerity or fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes.’ He went on to say that his Fourth Symphony was a far better work.
It is interesting to note after many years how much of the composer’s estimate of the Fifth Symphony fell wide of the mark and how much was damningly true. The work certainly was not a failure. It became one of the most popular symphonies ever written, one of the established showpieces of every orchestra’s repertoire, and a bulwark of Tchaikovsky’s hold on the affections of the music public. It has been played until every shred of novelty is worn away, the seams show, and the dramatic surprises are gone. Every critic knows how right the composer was when he spoke of over-exaggeration, insincerity, fabrication—even the ‘something repellent’. Nevertheless the Fifth Symphony is beloved wherever orchestras foregather the world over.
The work is another laboratory specimen of the composer’s mature style–which means a mixture of his virtues and faults in unexplainable juxtaposition. It has lyric richness almost to excess; it has brilliance, variety of mood, tremendous passion. It has also the composer’s characteristic melancholia, his mood of desperate sadness. There is an orchestration of clarity, colour, and resounding power; and finally, like pieces of glass set in a diadem, there are some classic examples of bad taste.
The symphony makes a good beginning, as Tchaikovsky so often does in his first movements. This one may be a patchwork of themes instead of a logical piece of sonata construction, but has melodic interest, well sustained. The motto theme with which the work begins is radically different from the Fatum of the Fourth Symphony, being not a brassy fanfare but a soft, gloomily intoned melody for the clarinet. It runs through the entire symphony in various guises, becoming in the last movement the main declamation point of the entire work. Its use is so strongly stressed as to suggest some concrete idea behind the composer’s inspiration. Tchaikovsky never admitted the existence of such a programme, as he did in the case of the Fourth Symphony, but many commentators have supplied their own. It seems doubtful if one really existed. This phase of Tchaikovsky’s music is apt to be confusing. He was obviously impressed with the tone-poem, programme-symphony idea, which permeated the music of the romantic era. It ruled so much of his thinking that even his most abstract works often sound as if they had a programmatic basis. His melodies, helped by his dramatic type of construction, often seem to be telling some story; it is one of their strongest characteristics. But most of the time the composer was simply imitating the tone-poem style, not actually carrying it out.
The second movement of the Fifth Symphony presents another celebrated Tchaikovsky melody. It is given at first to the solo horn and is later entwined with an obbligato by the oboe. The movement is remindful of a Chopin nocturne, extended and intensified with all the swelling passions and colours of the great orchestra. It misses being one of the supreme nocturnes, for its chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.
The third movement is marked Waltz, and for this the composer has been doubly damned. The purists have said that a waltz has no place whatever in a symphony, and anyway this is not a real waltz at all. They may be right on both counts, but not many listeners would sacrifice this particular movement. It is unpretentious, melodious, and charming; and it serves to relieve the emotional tension of the surrounding movements.
It is hard to forgive Tchaikovsky for the last movement of the Fifth Symphony [italics added]. His purpose was to end his symphony with a resounding, triumphal finale; his method in part was to take the gloomy motto theme, turn it from minor to major, and proclaim it to the skies. It so happens that this is one of the hardest tests to which a composer may subject a theme–to have it sung fortissimo by the brass. Better themes than Tchaikovsky’s have failed under this ordeal. Here the result is lamentable. The tune takes on neither dignity nor beauty only the banal trumpery of an operatic march by Meyerbeer [italics added].
— Richard Anthony Leonard, The Stream of Music
“[The second movement’s] chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.”
the fourth movement
It is hard to forgive Richard Anthony Leonard for such atrocious criticism.
The taste of the public, it has often been said, has always been, and will always be, abysmally low. But, a literary critic should be careful when savaging such universally beloved and esteemed works as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Misérables, or Great Expectations; or a pompous music critic the works of one of the greatest composers.
On November 8 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the West-East Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64. The symphony is comprised of four movements: Andante–Allegro con anima, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, Valse: Allegro moderato, Finale: Andante maestroso–Allegro vivace.
I believe Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was the first symphony I got to know in its entirety. It was the first symphony I ever purchased, on an LP when I was a teenager.
The above quote is from a popular book by the British music historian and critic Richard Anthony Leonard that is now out of print. It was used in a course, Introduction to Music, which I took at Brandeis University in my sophomore year.
I was dismayed and almost felt wronged when I read Leonard’s comments on the Fifth, in my college survey text (Leonard’s book). I thought for a moment: Could I be wrong about Tchaikovsky? Could it be that I was snowed, fooled by Tchaikovsky’s “schlocky” music? No, I thought, I don’t, can’t agree.
On October 27 at Carnegie Hall, I saw a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, opus 70. It was a work hitherto unknown to me.
The program notes contained the following comment:
Dvořák’s Seventh is generally ranked as the greatest of the composer’s nine symphonies. This assessment is voiced in spite of the work not being as ingratiating as the Eighth Symphony or as dramatic as the ever-popular Ninth, “From the New World.” Sir Donald Francis Tovey set the Seventh alongside the C-Major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art form since Beethoven.”
I am not prepared to say this about Dvořák’s Seventh. But, the comment got me to thinking: what are the greatest symphonies of all time?
Well, Tovey identifies most of them: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms.
What about Mozart?
My personal ranking:
All nine Beethoven symphonies. You can’t really choose among them.
Mozart’s last three symphonies and his Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”). The “Linz’ and Mozart’s’ Symphony No. 40 are personal favorites of mine.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C-Major. Incidentally, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is haunting, but it odes not, in my opinion, rank with the others listed above by me and is not the equal of Schubert’s Ninth.
Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies. These are his two greatest, I feel. The First is a personal favorite of mine, but the Fourth is equally great.
Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.
Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. I am convinced that it ranks with the others, and is the only modern symphony about which I am prepared to say this.
In all of the above works, what I find is brilliance of conception, structure, and musical architecture and unwavering emotional power. So that each work feels like an organic whole and never flags.
Well, almost never. The third movement — Valse: Allegro moderato — of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is comprised of a beautiful waltz worthy of Tchaikovsky, and yet I find my interest and sense of inevitability in the music flagging a bit at that point.
— Roger W. Smith