Feb 24, 2022
In 1888, Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony was premiered. It was enthusiastically received by the audience, and by Tchaikovsky’s friends. But Tchaikovsky’s nemesis, the critics, were not so happy with the piece. One utterly tore apart the symphony, writing after a performance in Boston: "Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say ... 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, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!” Another wrote: “Tchaikovsky appears to be a victim of the epidemic of the Music of the Future, that in its hydrophobia, scorns logic, wallows in torpor, and time and again, collapses in dissonant convulsions. Of basic inspiration in these people, who present interest at most as pathological cases, there is very little indeed.”
Usually this is the moment where I quote Sibelius’ brilliant: “no one ever built a statue to a critic” line, but for once, Tchaikovsky somewhat agreed with his critics. He wrote to his legendary patron Nadezhda von Meck: “I am convinced that this symphony is not a success. There is something so repellent about such excess, insincerity and artificiality.” Though he later changed his mind, the last movement of the symphony was always problematic for Tchaikovsky, and its been problematic for many performers and audience members to this day. Is the ending a profound expression of triumph over fate? Or is it hackneyed, over the top, and as Tchaikovsky said, excessive? Perhaps it’s the controversy over its ending, or perhaps something else, but ever since its premiere, Tchaikovsky’s 5th has been one of the most dependable audience favourites around the world. Today I’m going to take you through the genesis and the composition of this wonderful and polarising symphony. Join us!