PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 5 (1888)
Guilt about his homosexuality and the brief, disastrous marriage he had embarked on to hide it had already found expression in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Eleven years later, he confessed to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck: “Now I shall work my hardest. I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others, that I am not played out as a composer. … Have I told you that I intend to write a symphony?” Ever the fragile, self-doubting composer, Tchaikovsky saw himself as a plaything of fate, struggling for happiness. While sketching ideas for the Fifth he noted: “Introduction. Complete submission before Fate — or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence. Allegro. Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against ... XXX [which some feel is Tchaikovsky’s code for his homosexuality].” Even after this symphony’s successful St. Petersburg premiere and the orchestra’s triple fanfare in his honor, Tchaikovsky wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that [the Fifth Symphony] is a failure. The applause and ovations referred not to this but to other works of mine, and the Symphony itself will never please the public.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. To this day the glorious melodies of his emotionally-charged, “heart-on-sleeve” music never cease to thrill audiences, no matter what the composer himself feared or what unkind critics said. Throughout the work, Tchaikovsky employs a motive that is usually taken to symbolize “Fate” or “Providence,” presented in a variety of guises — from subdued to ominous to exultant — as the symphony unfolds. It appears that he has triumphed over fate, as thunderous brass and timpani bring this masterpiece home.