Tchaikovsky’s ideas for a new symphony, his fifth, most likely came in the spring of 1888. The composer wrote about it for the first time in a letter to his younger brother Modest and later to Nadezhda von Meck, the patron who had supported him for more than 10 years already:
“… I want to spend all summer and autumn at Frolovskoye, and do a great deal of work… I am giving thought to a new symphony”.
After the initial enthusiasm, Tchaikovsky is filled with self-doubts:
“I’ve still not yet made a start, because I’ve been working on various proofs. But I can honestly say that the urge to create has deserted me. What does this mean? Am I really written out? I’ve no ideas or inspiration whatsoever! But I hope little by little to gather materials for the symphony”.
However, luckily, he managed to get going:
“Now I am gradually, and with some difficulty, squeezing a symphony out of my dulled brain”
and a rough draft was completed by the end of June while the final version came by the end of August.
It seems like Tchaikovsky had originally envisioned a programme for his fifth Symphony. Some scribbles on the first sketches read:
Introduction: Total submission before fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence.
Allegro. Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against…
However, most of the musical sketches were subsequently rejected, and it is not possible to determine how much of the programmatic concept found its way into the completed work. On top of that, in a letter to the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of June 1888, Tchaikovsky specifically stated that
“At the present time, I am fairly busy and working diligently on the composition of a symphony, without a programme”.
By the way, you can find a copy of the score here.
The descending figures are generally predominant in Tchaikovsky’s themes, and this introduction is no exception. Right away though, one can notice one thing. The piece opens in a very quiet and intimate way but the weight of the sound that Tchaikovsky has in mind for the entire fifth symphony is established in the first bar: violas, cellos and double basses are marked as pesante e tenuto sempre (heavy and always held) while the theme is played not by a solo clarinet but by both of them in unison.
The opening phrase is a statement but it’s a very slow start: it’s like the composer has yet to decide if going ahead with telling us this story. He starts and stops, comes to a suspension, and then starts again only to land on a question mark at the end of this introduction.
Always breathe with the clarinets, literally, before giving the first upbeat. It is so important in order to get out of them the sound that you have in mind.
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