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.
In this Allegro con anima the first theme is introduced by this sort of walking accompaniment by the strings and played by the clarinet and bassoon in octaves,
Pay attention to the articulation: only a few eight notes are staccato, and even those have a legato marking.
The theme is picked up by the violins, while the woodwinds play these anxious scales underneath. These same scales become part of the theme in the answer to the first motive
On bar 83 and following make sure to get the entrance of the third trombone and tuba and check the balance between trombones and horns.
…and bridge dramatically into the first full orchestra tutti
We land on a new theme, built on an ascending scale. However, this is not the second theme just yet. It’s an elaboration of what’s come before with some new thematic material that serves exclusively as a bridge. Tchaikovsky keeps putting off the entrance of the second theme as if he was trying to put it into focus.
The energy dissipates until it is reduced to only 2 notes, alternating strings, and horns until a coup de théâtre impersonated by arpeggio pizzicato of the strings changes the light and the atmosphere.
Use a sharp, staccato stroke on the downbeat of bar 152 and the keep your stroke small
Once again, we have not reached the second theme just yet. This quasi pastoral section, alternating strings and woodwinds plus horns every 2 bars, is the final bridge before we finally arrive to the second theme.
The diarchy between a masculine first theme and feminine second theme, which we’ve seen in Beethoven’s Coriolan for example, is, once again, applied, with this section in perfect antithesis with the first one
It’s a very “simple” idea: 3 descending notes rising up and returning home in a 4 bars phrase. Notice how the theme is counterpointed by an ascending scale of 3-4 notes taken out from the 1st violins part 2 bars before the Molto piu’ tranquillo.
The idea is repeated, enlarging the mass of sound, and turns into a stringendo leading to a fff section where elements from the 1st theme, and from the various bridges fight against each other. The winner seems to be the pastoral motive which is left alone to introduce the development.
The dynamics are reduced, gradually, while Tchaikovsky alternates the pastoral motive, the ascending scales, and the first theme, moving from major to minor.
The descending scales of the strings lead us into wonderful moments, the strings breathing with anxiety and the celli answering again with a scale.
The fight moves on: the upper strings answer with an ascending scale that lands directly on the rhythmic cell of the first theme while the thematic material is disrupted in different bits, intensifying the intricacies of this moment.
Until only the rhythm of the first theme is left; the tuba and double bass mention the pastoral motive which is cut immediately by ascending and descending scales of the rests of the strings:
Notice how the violins are separated by 2 bars by violas and cellos, playing exactly the same material, while underneath tuba and double basses echo the pastoral motive sustained by the rhythmic cell in the woodwinds and horns.
The themes are intertwined until they become almost one single unit, and we are taken to the recapitulation through monumental gestures that seem to heavy for themselves, like someone slowly surrendering under the weight of the world.
The first theme comes back played by a sorrow bassoon while the strings pick up the same walking accompaniment, dragging on with difficulty.
The recapitulation proceeds by the book, mirroring the exposition until we get to the very end. Tchaikovsky here almost anticipates his 6th symphony: everything descends in the lowest register until we’re left with nothing but the bassoons playing a shred of the first theme which dies on the last breath of the cellos, basses, and timpani.
Conducting the end of the movement in your lower space will greatly improve the darkness of the sound
Notice the voicing: the bassoons play the fifth of the chord below everyone else. It’s the pitch that in this orchestration we hear the most and leaves everything almost suspended.
I love the way this piece is constructed: all the different motives come together in an extremely cohesive form, without the listener even realizing it. And, of course, the typical passionate drive of Tchaikovsky which I always feel very close.
What do you like the most about it? The rhythmic pulsing of it or the lusciousness of the second theme? Let me know in the comments below and if you liked this post don’t forget to share it! !
Pass the baton
10 chapters, 11 videos, practical exercises, and examples with scores: this video course produced for iClassical-Academy will show you, through a bar-by-bar analysis of excerpts ranging from Mozart to Mahler and Copland, how to build your own technique in the most logical and effective way.
Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.