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Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5

During 1877 to 1890, under the patronage of the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky was free to devote himself entirely to composition. Financially secure, he nevertheless found himself on the horns of an artistic dilemma. Fatalistic and highly-strung, Tchaikovsky naturally inclined to the Romantic ideology of expressing the artist's inner turmoil. Consequently, his music stressed the “emotional” at the expense of the “formal”. Yet he held the common view of the Symphony as the ultimate vehicle for a composer's loftiest statements. His problem was that he found conventional symphonic structure incompatible with his expressive intents, fretting about “having to end [his] days without having written anything perfect in form”. How could he cage his beast without also drawing its teeth? 

Tchaikovsky, in common with most Russians, had a problem regarding symphonic argument, namely that his musical culture was inherently short-winded - based on the repetitive use of short cells. The art of binding these into cohesive arguments, even over short spans, did not come naturally. In the Fourth Symphony (1878), he resolved the difficulty of large-scale structure through the use of an explicit programme, which lent a philosophical “scaffolding” on which to build the argument. This had provided a neat idea for “closing” the structure, by requiring the first movement's “fate” motif to be dramatically recalled just before the finale's coda. 

He took a major step forward in the Fifth Symphony (1888), in which he elaborated this device into a fully-fledged “motto” subject, incorporated into all four movements. But it was no panacea - there was still the problem of ensuring that each succeeding paragraph grew naturally out of its predecessor. This he resolved brilliantly by simply stirring in more themes, increasing the potential for development. There are still some characteristic “seams”, but these occur far less frequently, and now purely for dramatic effect. Significantly, although this music is as intensely dramatic as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote, there is not the slightest trace of a declared programme. 

1. Andante - Allegro con Anima begins with a lengthy slow introduction, entering darkly on clarinet. The first subject proper, deriving from the start of the introduction, skips in gently with the repetitive brevity of a russian dance, building in intensity. The strings usher in the second subject, which contains at least four distinct themes (go on, count them!), culminating in a typically soaring lyric for violins. The development section, in keeping with the composer's intention to maintain formal integrity, is quite short and concentrated with the recapitulation rather creeping in, on bassoons. The coda recedes into the deeps, presaging the mood of the next movement. 

2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza - Moderato con Anima - Andante mosso - Allegro non troppo - Tempo I A subdued sequence of string chords paves the way for the famous horn theme, based on five-note phrases probing tenderly upwards. This is countered by a similarly structured theme in four-note phrases. These two evolve rhapsodically, before a third subject, on solo clarinet, joins in to enrich the discourse. Soon after, the symphony's introductory theme rudely interrupts, vandalising, making a shocking claim to “motto-dom”. A sudden hiatus, a tentative feeling of recapitulation, then the motto slams in again, even more rudely, reducing the music to gloomy clarinet from which it recovers only as far as wistful dreaming. 

3. Valse: Allegro moderato is almost a divertimento after the Andante, a simple ternary form whose two statements of a flowing and lilting valse are separated by a contrasting central chatterbox. But wait! What comes creeping into the coda but that known criminal, the Motto, sneakily emulating the Idée Fixe in the Ball movement of the Symphonie Fantastique. The movement ends hurriedly, before it can do any damage. 

4. Finale: Andante maestoso - Allegro vivace - Molto Vivace - Moderato assai e molto maestoso - Presto The motto launches the finale with stately solemnity (I’ll bet that this influenced Sibelius in his First Symphony). Utterly rehabilitated, it now becomes the dominant force. The first subject (containing at least three themes) seethes with frenetic activity, spilling over into the bustling march of the second subject, rushing headlong into a climax at which the exultant motto hurls the music into a tumultuous development. There is one pause for breath before the music swirls dizzily into a recapitulation out of which the motto thrusts up a mighty crag, from behind which it emerges in what I can only describe as a clown's costume, all falolloping woodwind and soppy strings! Having got this joke out of its system, the motto leads a rowdy procession into the coda, where waits a wonderful surprise: is that a new theme tossed between trumpets and horns? No, it's none other than the first movement's first subject, popping up for a final cheery wave! Breathtaking? I'm breathless just writing about it.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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