Ask the average Joe Bloggs about what was significant in the year of 1888 and he’ll probably tell you Heinrich Hertz
discovered radio waves, but more importantly, at least for music’s sake, the year of 1888 was classical music’s Golden Year. It was in this year that Antonin Dvorak
composed, released and premiered his renowned 9th Symphony, which developed a cultural following similar to that of Beethoven’s 9th. Edvard Grieg
released his ever popular Peer Gynt Suite No. 1
, Erik Satie
published his controversial Trios Gymnopedies
,and Gustav Mahler
released his lengthy 1st Symphony
. However, it was also in this year that Pytor Tchaikovsky
composed one of his most beloved symphonies: his 5th in E minor.
Such a number before held appraisal from the giant Beethoven
, so living up to standards for all composers, was a challenge, even that of Tchaikovsky. Preceded by the illustrious 4th, and superseded by the amazing 6th, the 5th feels like it’s suffered from the “middle-child” effect from its siblings over the years. Tchaikovsky himself doubted his abilities numerous times during the composition of the piece. He often wrote to his relatives about how distressed he was about how it would be accepted by the public – unfortunately for him, he seemed to suffer greatly by the impressions of others towards his work. His negativity further bolstered itself, when during its premiere, on goers audaciously protested, citing it as his most uninteresting work. Such claims reprocessed throughout Europe and into the United States where the symphony became increasingly unpopular, particularly when the premiere of Dvorak’s 9th gathered such public approval. Tchaikovsky was devastated by the “slap-in-the-face” public reaction, but in a twist of events, he eventually came to a mutual appreciation with his symphony, stating "[…] I have started to love it again; my earlier judgment was undeservedly harsh..."
Attributing to its sudden declination at the time was believed by Tchaikovsky to be the over ambiguity of the work, citing it’s over colouring, complication and excessive construction. Yet, while this may be true, his 6th is far more complicating to listen towards, so really the actual reason is still hidden. Like his 4th, the symphony begins magnificently major, and initiates the audience’s attention through the introduction of the main theme. This theme is one of his most well absorbed, even to this day, no doubt why either. Listening to it is like stepping into to world of the romantic era, and getting covered in its zest.
While at the time, his symphony gathered a love-hate following, some later years (44 in fact) that the slim public approval finally out-weighed the negativity. During World War II, his 5th was ordered by Leningrad’s city officials to be played by the city's own Radio Symphony Orchestra
in an effort to keep the peace within the population’s preoccupied fear of being overrun by the horrific German siege. Despite, heavy bombing, the story goes that the orchestra never let up during the second movement. One can just imagine the fear, but also the predominant overpowering pride in sitting through such an event, particularly when the music from “Andante cantabile”
is so glorious to endure, with its horn solo and further allusions to the 4th symphony’s darker idea stream. The product of this pivotal performance was countless others, in a similar effort to preoccupy the minds of public affected by the War.
This in turn is what makes his 5th so fascinating. Not only is it inspiring to witness, it is also amazing from the shear brilliance of the orchestration. Where others have seemingly failed at appropriate voicing of the instruments, Tchaikovsky succeeds. From the brilliant motifs in “Andante - Allegro”
to the final superb outfit “Finale,”
and more physically inclined “Valse,”
the music gracefully stands on both feet, despite it’s sometimes held-back and uncertain approach. Naturally, for the classical novice, this symphony certainly isn’t marketplace material, yet for someone willing to listen, appreciate and reflect, this symphony is certainly his best effort in the genre, even though for years it held him back emotionally. Ironically, “fate” is what the symphony was subtitled by; perhaps he endured his own particular fate.