As Fate Would Have It: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

UntitledLeft: A ‘cabinet card’ of Tchaikovsky in 1888, the year his fifth symphony was composed (source: Thoughts on a Train, by Dick Strawser)

Standing alongside Beethoven’s fifth symphony as contemplations of Fate, are Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies. While in the fourth, fate appears as an arresting fanfare that bookends the symphony, in the fifth it is more complicated. It is the opening theme that expresses the composer’s state of mind, with Tchaikovsky penning these words in his notebook: “Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence…. Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith?” While Beethoven felt fate knocking at the door, with Tchaikovsky fate is already through it, and his musical storytelling is about what one does with this unexpected guest. It is this sense of embracing resignation that weaves through this symphony, celebrated as one of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring compositions.

Tchaikovsky was continually plagued with a sense of self-doubt, both musically and beyond. Dick Strawser notes that while the composer’s recent works, including the Serenade for Strings, the piano and violin concertos, and the 1812 Overture, were indeed celebrated in various major cities in Europe, no recognition was forthcoming in his homeland of Russia. Furthermore, thoughts of mortality were ever-present, with a dying friend, sister, and niece — not to mention personal struggles with sexuality in an unwelcoming world that saw him in a disastrous marriage, and wading into freezing waters in the hope that pneumonia would relieve him of this crisis of identity.

It is against this canvas that in the fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky’s introspective theme speaks to us. Michael Steinberg, writing for the San Francisco Symphony, notes of this theme: “It will recur as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, as an enervated ghost that approaches the languid dancers of the waltz, and – in a metamorphosis that is perhaps the symphony’s least convincing musical and expressive gesture – in majestic and blazing E major triumph.”

While in the fourth symphony, Strawser notes that fate is “an invisible force you will never overpower”, here in the fifth is not about an overpowering entity, but rather an acceptance of the many times fate determines the path. Phillip Huscher, writing for the Chicago Symphony, notes that the theme is taken from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar that accompanies the lyrics “turn not into sorrow”; perhaps this suggests to us that despite its ominous introduction in the low register of the clarinets, there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.

The work was composed in mid-1888, only five years before Tchaikovsky’s death, and was premiered in Saint Petersburg, with the composer at the helm. In four movements, it features beautiful melodic writing beginning with the horn solo of the second movement, and a waltz instead of a scherzo in the third movement that is reminiscent of the beauty Tchaikovsky created in ballet music. Perhaps as it resurges in triumphant form in the final movement, we see beauty in the pathos, bringing to mind Bertrand Russell’s words: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” — Andrew Filmer

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