Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

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Overture to The Flying Dutchman
Richard Wagner
Born: May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1881 in Venice, Italy


Wagner composed his great works exclusively for the opera house. Fortunately his music-dramas, as he called them, include a good deal of marvelous writing for orchestra. Whether as separate preludes or overtures, or as adaptations of music from within the opera proper, these Wagner excerpts have become popular fare in the concert hall. The overture that opens this evening’s program is from a relatively early opera, Der Fliegende Holländer [“The Flying Dutchman”], written in 1841 when the composer and his first wife, Minna Planer, were living in a suburb of Paris. Wagner later considered this opera to be the first one to represent his true style.

The opera is rooted in legend. The title character is a sea captain who has been condemned by the devil to sail the seas forever. An angel has offered him the possibility of redemption. One day every seven years, he is permitted to come into port. If he can find a woman who will love him unto death, he will be freed from his cursed fate.  Wagner was taken with the tale for years before he crafted the libretto. The theme of redemption through love would recur several times in his later works.

Wagner’s overture is based on three principal musical ideas. Two of them correspond to the main characters; the third represents nature’s power. The stark opening fanfare, built on the two pitches A and D, is the  Dutchman’s theme. The surging chromatic runs and arpeggios in the strings represent the sea itself, which plays an important part in the opera. The third principal theme is the music of the heroine Senta, who makes the ultimate sacrifice at the opera’s close. Wagner presents her lovely melody as an integral building block of his overture, introducing it on English horn. The piece works independent of the opera house because it has memorable tunes, excitement, textural variety, and a carefully organized structure.

The score to the overture calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.


Symphony No.5 in E-minor, Op.64
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia


Hans Keller has observed that Tchaikovsky’s last two symphonies are so popular that one feels somewhat embarrassed to be writing about either one:  

It is as if one were invited to write an essay recommending the “Blue Danube” waltz.  Yet, at the present stage in the history of music, one finds onself in the paradoxical position of having to defend these works against their popularity.  

Over the years, the Fifth Symphony has swung in and out of favor.  Within a year or two of its premiere in 1888, critics took the Russian composer to task for lack of discipline, incoherence, and commonplace themes.  Reception was particularly severe in the United States where, for example, the Boston Evening Transcript critic wrote:  

Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say….In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirum tremens, raving, and bove all, noise worse confounded!  

Somehow the symphony succeeded in transcending such journalistic mudslinging and winning a secure place in the repertoire.  Its enormous popularity exists because of an emotional immediacy in Tchaikovsky’s music that reaches the listener on a very personal level.  Is there any symphonic work more immediately moving and ingratiating than Tchaikovsky’s Fifth?  From its opening measures, where the clarinet declaims a lugubrious Russian march tune, this symphony grips and retains our emotional involvement.  Nowhere is Tchaikovksy less subtle, and nowhere is he more effective.  The lovely horn melody that dominates the famous slow movement is one of the triumphs of the symphonic literature:  memorable and eminently singable, it stays with us for weeks after a hearing of this symphony.  

And the waltz — a bow to Berlioz’s similar ploy in the Symphonie fantastique, also replacing the scherzo — is graceful and alluring, ever a reminder that Tchaikovsky was the greatest ballet composer of the nineteenth century.  His reliance on dance rhythms in this symphony, particularly waltzes and marches, contributes to its cyclic unity and emphasizes his innate gift as a composer for the ballet stage.  

Tchaikovsky began work on his Fifth Symphony shortly after taking occupancy of his new country house at Frolovskoye, near Klin.  He moved there in April 1888, and at first was entranced by gardening and the natural beauty of his surroundings.  By midsummer, however, the urge to compose had returned.  He commenced work on the E-minor symphony, his first in over a decade, and was orchestrating by August.  The premiere performances took place that autumn in St. Petersburg.  Their failure depressed Tchaikovsky, whose opinion of his own new compositions tended to vacillate wildly with public and critical opinion.  He was much encouraged by Johannes Brahms’s kind words the following spring in Hamburg, when the new symphony was first heard in Germany on tour.  In a letter to his brother Modest from Hamburg in March 1889, he wrote:  

Brahms stayed an extra day to hear my symphony and was very kind.  We had lunch together after the rehearsal and quite a few drinks.  He is very sympathetic and I like his honesty and open-mindedness.  Neither he nor the players liked the Finale, which I also think rather horrible.  

But two weeks later, from Hanover, this harsh self-criticism had passed, and he was able to write:  

The Fifth Symphony was beautifully played and I have started to love it again — I was beginning to develop an exaggerated negative opinion about it.    

Like its predecessor, the stormy Fourth Symphony, the Fifth focuses on mankind’s futile struggle with destiny.  This is, however, a more spiritual work than the F-minor symphony; specifically it deals with man’s spiritual helplessness and inadequacy.  These thoughts are most evident in the finale, which opens with great solemnity.  But the entire symphony is filled with operatic crescendos and dramatic, sudden shifts in tempo, all of which bespeak a soul in torment, searching for its own catharsis.  

Tchaikovsky scored his Fifth Symphony for three flutes (third doubling piccolo); oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. 


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

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