Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading Tchaikovsky's 5th

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) wrote his Fifth Symphony in E minor over the summer of 1888, and conducted its premiere himself later that year. Clocking in at about 46 minutes, it has the usual four movements, though the third is a Valse (Waltz). One of the remarkable things about the symphony - though not unique, even among Tchaikovsky's works - is its use of cyclical methods. Which is to say, the same thematic material appears in all four movements, though in a different character each time.

The motto in this instance is a theme borrowed from one of Glinka's operas, where the lyrics said "Do not give way to sorrow." This, of course, means nothing to most listeners who aren't well-versed in Russian opera. So what we hear is an abstract motto-theme going through a gradual transformation, through all four movements, from the somber shuffle of a funeral cortège to the dazzling brilliance of a military march. And so, instead of hearing the work as four abstract movements united by key relationships and musical proportions, we experience Symphony Five as a philosophical treatise, a single argument spanning all four movements, in which Tchaikovsky seems to affirm a kind of optimism in the face of life's difficulties. You could say that it is a Musical Essay on Courage, and a significant one too, coming as it does between the grim fatalism of the Fourth Symphony and the cynical despair of the Sixth.

Movement I, Andante, begins very quietly, with two clarinets in unison introducing the motto theme in a mournful, low register against a spare accompaniment by the lower strings. At bar 38, the tempo changes to Allegro con anima (fast and spirited), and at the same time the meter switches to a marchlike 6/8. A solo clarinet and solo bassoon together introduce the first theme of the movement proper, at first quietly. Other instruments gradually join in as the strings take command of the theme; the volume and textural density grows. By bar 116, Tchaikovsky has effected a transition to the key of F-sharp major, where the strings introduce a juicy new idea, afterward taken up by the winds against pizzicato accompaniment. This in turn forms a transition to a "slightly more animated" D-major theme (bar 154) where the winds and strings dialogue with each other; then a "much more tranquil" syncopated theme blending both choirs. This accelerates to a codetta based on the dialogue theme, which you knew was going to be good for that kind of thing the first moment you heard it.

As this codetta dies away, the development begins immediately (bar 226) with the first theme (the marchlike one). This stirs up some excitement, which then moves to the background as Tchaikovsky trots out the juicy second theme, instantly transforming it from yawning decadence to brisk urgency. The dialogue/codetta theme soon commands a huge climax, sounding frantic this time. All this quiets down in time for the recap, which begins at bar 320. This time when we get to the second ("juicy") theme it's in the key of G-sharp. This key, though not closely related to either E minor or E major, hints that the movement's argument will be decided in favor of E major.* Sure enough, the codetta (dialogue theme) appears in E major this time, followed by the syncopated tune we haven't heard since the exposition. Now where the expo died down to make way for the development, the recap ramps up to an exciting coda focusing on the marchlike first theme.

Movement II, Andante cantabile (measured and lyrical), opens with a soft, sustained string passage that proves to be accompaniment for the solo horn melody you have been waiting to hear all your life. This horn theme alternates with an idea introduced by the oboe, Tchaikovsky husbanding the pair through changes in key, instrumentation and decoration. The movement's "B section" starts at bar 66 with a theme announced by the clarinet, a theme with an exotic hint of Central Asian flavor. This section builds up to a climax where, suddenly, the motto from the slow intro to Movement I appears in a guise of threatening stridency. The music's reaction to this invasion is, as it were, to freeze in shock. Then the opening horn theme returns (in the violins this time), and the music gradually recovers its confidence. Before you know, the mood actually becomes cheerful - then goes beyond that into thrilling strains of triumph.

But wait! Just when it seems to be calming down for a quietly satisfied conclusion, the "Do not give way to sorrow" motto-cum-nasty fanfare comes back in all its disturbing horror, an effect made particularly devilish by the difference of a tritone (augmented fourth, a.k.a. diabolus in musica) between the expected tonic resolution in D and the actual harmonic progression to G-sharp. This time, perhaps fortified by its previous experience, the music seems to sigh: "Oh, well!" and goes on with its quiet closing, based on the theme the oboe introduced. The final page of the movement would be peaceful if it wasn't undermined by a vaguely disturbing background of swelling and subsiding triplets in the horns and winds.

Movement III, that aforementioned Valse in A major, flows along with limpid (not to say limping) grace. Beneath the surface, however, there is a feeling of instability or uncertainty, signaled by chromatic notes in the inner parts. At bar 57 the bassoon introduces a remarkable tune in which rising sixths alternate with falling sevenths, an effect that perhaps looks ahead to the spikiness of many a 20th century tune. A rustling, bustling central episode enters the scene at bar 73. This new idea puts a bright sparkle on the movement, and enables us to visit a variety of tonal centers. Its animation hasn't quite let go its grip when the initial waltz theme steps back in. The movement closes with a coda full of confidence and good cheer, in which the motto theme does not fail to appear. In this instance, the motto seems to join in the dance, albeit in the (perhaps facetiously) grudging manner of an old uncle submitting to his nephews' and nieces' cajolery.

Movement IV doesn't keep us in suspense as to how or when the motto theme will appear. It presents it up front as a warmly glowing march theme in E major. Here the tempo is marked Andante maestoso: measured and majestic. Tchaikovsky really opens it up for the first time, letting it have its head for some 57 measures, before a change to E minor, a much livelier tempo, and a theme of such a harsh mien that many of its first hearers were offended, interpreting this movement as a depiction of warlike savagery. But this is only the first of a fascinating gallery of contrasting ideas, from the phlegmatic, transitional theme introduced by the winds at bar 82, to the gorgeous, soaring, elated theme first heard at bar 128. And of course, that triumphant march tune (based on the motto) is always ready to reappear.

The argument of the finale's brief development section is based entirely on the elated theme. When the warlike theme reappears at the beginning of the recap, it is with a new countermelody. The third appearance of the motto-march is given even more weight than before; and after wrapping up the recap in a blaze of brass, the motto theme commands a faster and even more majestic coda (bar 472ff). Then, as if this isn't enough, Pyotr Ilyich adds a Presto passage in which the triumph seems to dissolve into a communal jig of glee and in which, appropriately, the elated theme makes one last appearance, like a hero in a parade - briefly glimpsed, waving - before being swallowed up by the crowd. Finally, at measure 546, Tchaikowsky tops the whole lollapalooza with a much slower, closing fanfare based on the first theme from Movement I.

Frankly, I don't understand how early critics could have heard this as a movement full of "slaughter, dire and bloody." I think it's glorious. The only "dire and bloody" theme is the heard but briefly at the beginning of the exposition and recap. To be sure, the ending is intemperate and noisy, like the "jumping yaks" of Beethoven's Seventh, and perhaps drawn out to an even greater degree; but it is a joyful, encouraging ending that, due to the way the motto theme holds the whole symphony together, delivers a powerful message of hope: the hope of future victory in spite of, and all the sweeter because of, the griefs and horrors of the present life. I hope Tchaikovsky believed it, because he had a full share of griefs and horrors.

I have heard an arrangement of this symphony's slow movement for organ solo. Parts of this symphony have also turned up in the soundtrack of several films, and one daring impresario staged the entire symphony as a ballet under the title Les Présages. Though it doesn't attract quite the popular following of Tchaikovsky's darker, even-numbered masterpieces, it seems to speak to a lot of people. I hope you, too, will engage it in conversation some time.

*(Another explanation for the switch to G-sharp major is that the transition from the second theme to the codetta is the same in both parts of the movement; so, simply by moving the second theme up an extra step, Tchaikovsky manages to land in E instead of D.) IMAGES: Portraits of Tchaikovsky, with apologies to Bridgeman's Art Library.

EDIT: Here is a video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the first movement of this symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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