I. Andante – Allegro con anima
II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
III. Valse. Allegro moderato
Iv. Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace
Tchaikovsky began composing his fifth symphony in May 1888, completing the initial sketches a month later. The work was finished in time for the premiere on November 17 in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting. Critical reaction was mixed, the negative reviews of which stayed with the composer, despite positive responses from the audience. Plagued by anxiety and self-doubt about his creative prowess, Tchaikovsky’s own opinion about the symphony fluctuated over the ensuing months. “After every performance I come to the same conclusion that this symphony is a failure,” he initially wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck. “It turns out [it’s] too gaudy, too unwieldy, insincere, too long, and possesses insufficient appeal in general.” However, he appeared to have revised his opinion by March 1889, after a successful performance of the piece in Hamburg. As he wrote to his brother Modest, “Best of all, I have stopped disliking the symphony. I love it again.”
Tchaikovsky had revealed to Konstantin Romanov that his new symphony had no program. Yet only a month before he started composing, he had outlined ideas and themes for one:
Intro: Total submission before Fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence
Allegro: 1. Murmurs, laments, doubts, reproaches against…XXX [possibly a coded reference to his homosexual yearnings]
2. Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???
A wonderful programme, if only it can be fulfilled
[For the slow movement] A ray of light…No, there is no hope.
The extent to which any of this can be definitively applied to his Fifth Symphony is debatable; what’s clear, though, is that the work has a clearly defined emotional arc, seeming to draw on things deeply personal to the composer, very possibly these ideas. (For example, diary entries in the months before he drafted the program reveal that the Tchaikovsky was preoccupied with the death of Eduard Zak, his former student and friend who had committed suicide at age 19, and with whom he had a profound and likely complex relationship.)
A key element of the narrative is the symphony’s opening theme, which becomes a recurring “motto” that is transformed throughout the work. (One view is that it represents “Providence”, with its rhythm based on the Orthodox Easter hymn “Christ is risen!” Another is that it’s a quote from an aria in Mikhail Glinka’s opera The Life for the Tsar, “Turn not to sorrow”.) In the first movement, the motto, first intoned by two clarinets, has a chant-like, solemn quality in the minor mode. It becomes more threatening in the passionate second movement, bursting forth ominously in the trumpets midway and near the end. In the concluding moments of the waltz, the motto makes a quiet intrusion, played by low clarinets and bassoons. It then opens the finale, completely transformed. Now in the major mode, it’s grand and majestic, and after much vigorous energy and tumult, the motto makes a final return in the coda, triumphant.
The second movement is the emotional climax of the work; its two themes, the first played by solo horn, the second introduced by oboe and horn in duet, both begin tenderly, reflectively, then build to heart-bursting climaxes. (Tchaikovsky had apparently written over the horn solo “O que je t’aime! O mon amie!” [or more likely ‘ami’.] O, how I love…if you love me…With desire and passion.”) It’s during the second, greater climax of the second theme, that the motto interrupts. In light of this ravishing music, perhaps the triumphant integration of the motto theme in the finale seems uneasy—it may be the reason why Tchaikovsky was unsure of its sincerity, as if wrestling with the question “Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???” Ultimately, there’s something in this symphony’s music that reaches towards hope—in living life passionately and to the fullest in each moment, despite the inevitability of grief, death, and loss.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009 - 2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.