By Daniel Sheridan
When one considers the gap between Tchaikovsky’s enduring popularity with concert audiences and the struggles for critical respectability his work has endured during his lifetime and beyond, it prompts one to wonder if the two factions are experiencing different composers. True, a good deal of Tchaikovsky skepticism can be attributed to a bias towards the Austro-German musical tradition: an acceptance of their practices as default would surely result in the perception of composers that adopted different methods (like, say, Russians) as comparatively lacking. Indeed, the eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin observes that critical appraisals of Tchaikovsky often frame his symphonic writing as a debasement of the Germanic style, too preoccupied with appealing to audiences to provide music of genuine substance. With that caveat in mind, perhaps there is something to the notion of two Tchaikovsky’s: the gifted melodist creating emotionally intense music existing simultaneously with the one producing the deficiencies perceived by his detractors. The tension between these two composers is part of what gives his music its character. With that in mind, it is easy to situate the Fifth Symphony as a signature work, in that it embodies both aspects of Tchaikovsky’s musical character.
Tchaikovsky’s conception of the symphony was borne of a conscious rejection of the prevailing aesthetics of nineteenth-century orchestral writing; in other words, he had no interest in the Brahmsian method of building large-scale structures out of short, motivic themes. Tchaikovsky’s predilection for expansive melodies–influenced, as is well-documented, by his affinity for Mozart– did not readily lend itself to the kinds of fragmentation, modulation, rhythmic augmentation/diminution and other alterations associated with development and thematic transformation.
[videogallery video1=”youtube” url1=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXH5KnwSHK4″ image1=”https://www.hpo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Screen-Shot-2020-01-24-at-4.04.21-PM.png” caption1=”Horn solo from 2nd movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5″ video2=”youtube” url2=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4up-YJTYDA” image2=”https://www.hpo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Screen-Shot-2020-01-24-at-4.05.08-PM.png” caption2=”Excerpt of 4th movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5″ ]
There we see perhaps the most prominent disjuncture in the two Tchaikovskys: the tunefulness that beguiles audiences contrasted with the perception of the prizing of surface pleasures above all else. What is undeniable is that Tchaikovsky’s melodic talents are on full display in the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony: in both movements, his primary and secondary themes are instantly memorable. The secondary theme of the first movement and both themes in the second displaying the kind of emotionalism and yearning that we so typically associate with the composer. The primary theme of the first movement of course will have implications over the symphony as a whole, arising as it does out of an introductory “fate” motive stated by the clarinets at the symphony’s outset.
Tchaikovsky’s melodic talents are complemented by his ear for orchestral colour; in this symphony, he seldom steps wrong in finding the instrumentation that will bring out the emotional impact he is seeking. A particularly interesting example is his frequent use of chords built out of lower-voiced instruments, heard at the beginning and close of the first movement, and recapitulated at the head of the second. The close harmonization of bass voices creates an unpleasant sound that the composer is surely aware of; the gesture produces a pained effect redolent of emotional turmoil.
Tchaikovsky’s disinterest in the German symphonic model rears its head conspicuously in his treatment of form. His symphonies, this one included, bend typical structures to his will. Where German partisans might see Tchaikovsky’s formal approaches as undisciplined, others see imagination and creativity. The first movement reframes sonata form to function not so much as a process of thematic exposition and development, but into something more episodic, emphasizing sharp juxtapositions of contrasting material. Similar principles are applied to his variation of ternary form in the second movement. The result is musical structures that appear to proceed through discreet sections, yet still maintain lineage to the traditional forms. Interestingly, it is where Tchaikovsky endeavours to create the type of formal and thematic unity so prized by his critics that he falls short: the opening “fate” motive appears in various guises in all four movements, but the gambit fails to come off, as the motive seems forced into the second and third movements. In this instance, the “second” Tchaikovsky apparently prevails.
While it is no secret that Tchaikovsky’s reputation as a composer does not endure based on his abilities as a contrapuntalist, it is difficult to definitively diagnose the general lack of interesting counterpoint as bespeaking a lack of skill or overall disinterest. To reiterate, his favored musical effects were melody, harmony, rhythm, and sound colour. Tchaikovsky’s comparative minimization of polyphony no doubt added fuel to the fire of those who saw his music as a corruption of canonized practices. But perhaps we should think twice about seeing Tchaikovsky’s de-emphasis of counterpoint as simply a conscious stylistic deviation from a defined norm. For one thing, minimal counterpoint can have the adverse effect of underlining moments when Tchaikovsky’s melodic sense periodically fails him, such as the waltz theme of the third movement, where the melodic material is weak. On the other hand, the second movement features some attempts at counterpoint, mainly in the form of countermelodies and call-and-response; the effort comes across as perfunctory, leading one to wonder if his typical avoidance of counterpoint is in fact an implicit acknowledgment that it is a weakness in his technique.
Never known to be reticent to engage in harsh self-criticism, Tchaikovsky regarded the symphony’s finale as overly crude. His self-assessment is alas correct, to the degree that this concluding movement can be considered one of his weakest compositions. Tchaikovsky’s efforts to craft a resounding signal of triumph overshoots the mark, substituting volume and aggression for excitement, a mistake compounded by being presented with little variety either in terms of sonority or melodic invention. The overall effect is wearying instead of exhilarating. This disappointment of this conclusion is intensified when one considers how well-crafted the earlier stages of the work are.
In perhaps its own perverse way, the failure of the finale helps bolster the contention that the Fifth Symphony is a keystone work in Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre. With both the piece’s notable strengths and occasional shortcomings, it contains elements that both adherents and detractors can point to for support of their point. It is a work that perhaps more than others encourage the notion of two Tchaikovskys that exist simultaneously and speak to partisans of both. That the symphony resists being completely embraced or dismissed is what makes it such a fascinating work. The symphony, like its composer, can prove to be a far thornier subject than one that has achieved overwhelming consensus, and that can prove to have just as much staying power as any universally acclaimed masterwork.