Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

Tchaikovsky is known for sketching out his themes for works. In April 1888 he sketched out the themes for a symphony alongside some ideas for a programme for the first movement;

“Intro: Total submission before Fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutible designs of Providence.
Allegro: 1. Murmus, laments, doubts, reproaches against…XXX
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”

But by June he said he was working on a symphony “without programme” so it is thought that the April sketches are for an unfinished work that was set aside for what would become his 5th Symphony. It is unknown how many of the ideas from the unfinished work were recycled into the piece we hear tonight.

It had been 10 years since the completion of his 4th symphony, and it would be another 5 years before he completed his 6th.

It didn’t take Tchaikovsky 10 years to compose his 5th symphony, he did compose several works in the meantime. But in fact, there is a bit of a gap in his composing due in part to his disastrous marriage. One of the most discussed points when it comes to Tchaikovsky is his sexuality and how he married a woman he barely knew to protect him from the stigma against homosexuality. He was deeply embarrassed by his new wife and avoided his friends, and ultimately her presence as well. He eventually fled his wife so he could live in Paris and his brothers began to pay the wife to stay quiet and stay away.

Not all his relationships with women were as disastrous as his marriage. A wealthy widow by the name of Nadezhda von Meck sent a letter to Tchaikovsky wanting to commission some chamber pieces. From this initial letter a correspondence sprang up and soon they were writing each other about music, love, and life. Von Meck ended up paying him a stipend that would allow Tchaikovsky to quit his day job but there was a caveat: They could never meet.

It was during this patronage, and friendship by correspondence, that the 5th Symphony was born. During the slow movement there is a theme associated, by Tchaikovsky, with the words “O que je t’aime! Oh mon amie!” Because of the feminine “amie” writers have suggested that this was a reference to his beloved patroness.

While many of his friends told Tchaikovsky this was his best work, he had doubts about it and wrote to his brother “I am convinced that this symphony is not a success”. Three months later he wrote to his bother again about the 5th symphony after a performance in Hamburg; ” Best of all, I have stopped disliking the symphony. I love it again”.

Despite Tchaikovsky’s doubts about his Symphony No. 5 its somewhat mixed and critical reviews it has gone on to be one of his most popular works.

It has also been a source of inspiration as Cole Porter used the 4th movement as the foundation for his tune Farewell Amanda, written for the  1949 Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn film Adam’s Rib.


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