May to August 26, 1888 at Tchaikovsky’s home in Frolovskoye
November 17, 1888 with Tchaikovsky conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Tchaikovsky did not begin work on his Fifth Symphony until an entire decade had passed since the premiere of his Fourth. Although Tchaikovsky continued composing for the orchestra during this long span, he also became more involved in conducting his own works, and embarked on his first European conducting tour at the start of 1888. It was during this tour that he was introduced to the elderly chairman of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Theodor Avé-Lallement, who may have provided at least some impetus for Tchaikovsky to finally begin a new symphony.
During their conversation, Avé-Lallement flatly informed Tchaikovsky that he disliked his music due to its bombastic scoring, and tearfully implored him to move to Germany, where there was still hope for his obvious talents to be corrected. Despite Tchaikovsky’s misfortune of being born in Russia, Avé-Lallement was convinced that the he had “the makings of a really good German composer.”1 This meeting with the charmingly earnest Avé-Lallement left such an impression on Tchaikovsky that he ended up dedicating the Fifth Symphony to him later that year.
Tchaikovsky was very aware of the public’s high expectations for his first symphony in ten years, but doubts in his own ability to write a symphony on the same artistic level as the previous four weighed heavily on him. He informed his brother Modeste on May 31, “I am now slowly and laboriously beginning to squeeze out a symphony from my dulled wits.”2 Three weeks later, on June 22, he wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, with a similarly gloomy outlook:
I’m now terribly anxious to prove not only to others but also to myself that I’m not played out. I often have doubts about myself, and ask myself—hasn’t the time now come to stop, haven’t I always overstrained my imagination too much, hasn’t the source dried up?3
By the time Tchaikovsky had completed the score on August 26, his appraisal seemed decidedly more optimistic. A week earlier he had written von Meck:
Now that the symphony is nearing completion I am more objective in my attitude towards it than I was in the heat of composition and I can say that, Heaven be praised, it isn’t inferior to the earlier ones. The fact that I feel this to be so gives me great delight.4
Tchaikovsky was far from the only one pleased with his new symphony, as the premiere was a success not only with the audience, but with the musicians of the orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s own personal friends and colleagues as well. Critics, however, were far from enthusiastic, and questioned whether Tchaikovsky really had exhausted his creativity as a composer (one popular criticism was that the symphony lazily included as many as three separate waltzes). Despite its positive reception by audiences, the symphony’s critical panning resurfaced many of Tchaikovsky’s initial doubts. He wrote von Meck after the first two performances:
I have become convinced that this symphony is unsuccessful. There is something repulsive about it, a certain excess of gaudiness and insincerity, artificiality. And the public instinctively recognizes this… Have I already, as they say, written myself out, and am I now only able to repeat and counterfeit my former style? Yesterday evening I looked through the Fourth Symphony, ours! What a difference, how much superior and better it is! Yes, this is very, very sad!5
But was this Tchaikovsky’s lasting impression of his Fifth Symphony? It appears not. Only one month later, after an enthusiastic performance in Hamburg, Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov with a softened view:
The Fifth Symphony was magnificently played and I like it far better now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time. Unfortunately, the Russian press continues to ignore me. With the exception of my nearest and dearest, no one will ever hear of my successes.6
There is no known program for the Fifth Symphony, save for a cryptic description of the first movement that Tchaikovsky left in one of his notebooks:
Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. (I) Murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself into the embraces of faith???7
1 Warrack, 211.
2 Field, 666.
4 Ibid., 667.
5 Warrack, 217.
6 Burk, 348-49.
7 Warrack, 214. “XXX” is likely a reference to the subject of his suppressed homosexuality, which is the only subject Tchaikovsky referred to in his diaries with such symbols.