Symphony No. 5

Tchaikovsky Research
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Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (TH 29 ; ČW 26), was composed and orchestrated between May and August 1888.


The Symphony is scored for an orchestra consisting of 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in A), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Movements and Duration

There are four movements:

  1. Andante—Allegro con anima (E minor, 542 bars)
  2. Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza (D major, 180 bars)
  3. Valse. Allegro moderato (A major, 266 bars)
  4. Finale. Andante maestoso–Allegro vivace (E major, 565 bars)

A complete performance of the Symphony lasts approximately 45 to 50 minutes [1].


Tchaikovsky's ideas for a new symphony probably arose during late March/early April 1888. The composer wrote about it for the first time in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky from Tiflis, on 28 March/9 April: "in the summer I intend to write a symphony..." [2]. The day before leaving Tiflis, on 13/25 April, he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "... I want to spend all summer and autumn at Frolovskoye, and do a great deal of work... I am giving thought to a new symphony" [3].

On 24 April/6 May, now at Frolovskoye, he wrote to her: "After a trip to Saint Petersburg and some visits to Moscow in connection with the conservatory examinations, I intend first of all to compose a symphony..." [4]. In a letter to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya of 23 April/5 May, Tchaikovsky outlined his schedule: "I will be in Saint Petersburg for four days... returning after Famine week, and then settle down in the village and set about my work, namely I want to write a symphony..." [5]. On 9/21 May, Tchaikovsky told her: "Today I returned from Saint Petersburg, where I have spent the last ten days... Now I can work for days on end, in peace and freedom" [6].

In mid/late May, he wrote: "I've still not yet made a start, because I've been working on various proofs. But I can honestly say that the urge to create has deserted me. What does this mean? Am I really written out? I've no ideas or inspiration whatsoever! But I hope little by little to gather materials for the symphony" [7]. Around this time, evidently, he did begin work on the Symphony: "Now I am gradually, and with some difficulty, squeezing a symphony out of my dulled brain" [8].

While travelling from Tiflis to Moscow, the composer had already recorded a number of themes for the new symphony in one of his notebooks, one of which is dated 15/27 April 1888 [9]. During the course of the summer, Tchaikovsky frequently had to leave Frolovskoye, besides which he took ill during June, although he continued to work on the Symphony during his illness.

The most intensive work on the Fifth Symphony was carried out between 7/19 and 17/29 June, although Tchaikovsky continued to doubt his abilities: "I am working quite assiduously on a symphony, which, if I am not mistaken, will be no worse than its predecessors. But perhaps this is just my opinion now... I may later feel that I am written out, that my head is empty, that my time is past, etc." [10].

On 10/22 June, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "I must work harder in the future; I want so much to show not only to others, but to myself, that I still haven't expired... I don't know whether I wrote to you that I had decided to write a symphony. At first it was fairly difficult; now inspiration seems to have deserted me completely" [11].

The rough draft was completed on 17/29 June [12]. This draft of the Symphony was later sent by Tchaikovsky to Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, probably in September 1888 [13]. Its whereabouts at the present time are unknown.

The surviving sketches show the gradual evolution of ideas for the Fifth Symphony. The first musical notes are significantly different from the last, and apparently comprise musical materials intended for an original version of the Symphony, which the author later rejected. The evidence suggests that the sketches for this first version were made by Tchaikovsky while he was at Frolovskoye between 9/21 May and 23 May/4 June 1888. Probably, it was this phase of composition that Tchaikovsky referred to when he described his work on the Symphony as "initially fairly difficult" [14].

On 22 June/4 July, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "I have been working well the whole time; I have already prepared in rough a symphony and an overture to the tragedy Hamlet, which I have had in mind to write for a long time. In the coming weeks I shall set about the instrumentation of both works... although for almost a whole month I have been able to rise to the challenge, despite my poor state of health, yet my indisposition has not really impeded my work. At the moment it is difficult to say how this symphony will turn out when compared with my previous ones, and particularly in comparison to ours. What was previously easy and straightforward has not remained so" [15].

"After the 29th [O.S.] I shall take up the instrumentation", the composer wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky on 26 June/8 July [16]. But on 1/13 July, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, he stated: "I am working well. I have finished the symphony and the overture to Hamlet, and set about their instrumentation. Having prepared two large-scale works I am in high spirits, because, you know, I had begun to think that I was played out, since it was initially very difficult" [17].

"My work is now progressing terribly slowly. Time flies, old age draws near, and each moment is precious to me; but in the meantime, despite my efforts, I cannot concentrate on work. However I hope that by the end of the summer to have finished both my symphonic works", he wrote to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya on 6/18 July 1888 from Moscow [18].

After visits to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky returned to Frolovskoye on 12/24 July [19], and once again resumed work: "From tomorrow I shall work very assiduously on the instrumentation" [20].

On 25 July/6 August he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "I am now working very successfully, and the greater portion of the symphony is already scored"[21]. But on 1/13 August, the composer told Vladimir Shilovsky, "I'm working terribly, because of the need to finish the full score of the symphony as quickly as possible" [22].

Evidently, as soon as the instrumentation of the first movement and finale was complete, Tchaikovsky sent the full scores to Sergey Taneyev, who was to make an arrangement for piano duet (4 hands). Taneyev responded on 6/18 August: "I have received the first movement of the symphony and your letter, in which you wrote that you were sending the Finale" [23].

On 7/19 August, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "Now, as the symphony nears its end, I can view it objectively, and at the culmination of the work I must say that, thank God, it is no worse than my previous ones. This accomplishment means a great deal to me!" [24].

After the third movement (waltz) in the fair copy of the manuscript score is the note: "9 Aug ‘88. Frolovskoye" [O.S.].

By 14/26 August, all work on scoring the Symphony had been completed: "I am so pleased that my symphony is safely finished" [25]. "My symphony is ready, and I think that I have not miscalculated, that it has turned out well" [26].

While composing the Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky constantly doubted his powers of composition [27]. However, after completing the symphony he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 24 September/6 October 1888: "Thank God that I still have the will to work. But my urge to produce is so great that even two lifetimes would barely be sufficient to carry out my all my plans" [28].


It appears that originally Tchaikovsky envisaged a programme for the Symphony. A scribbled note by the first sketches reads as follows:

Programme: 1st movement of symph[ony].
Intr[oduction]. Total submission before fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence.
Allegro. 1) Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against... XXX
II) Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???
A wonderful programme, if only it can be fulfilled.

Another note with a programmatic character appears in sketches for the second movement [29]:


There are also musical ideas for the other movements, with programmatic annotations (e.g. "consolation", "a ray of light", "no, there is no hope", etc). However, most of the musical sketches were subsequently rejected, and it is not possible to say how much of the programmatic concept found its way into the completed Fifth Symphony. Writing to the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich on 11/23 June 1888, Tchaikovsky specifically stated that "At the present time, I am fairly busy and working diligently on composition of a symphony, without a programme" [30].

It is possible that some of the programmatic content originally envisaged for the Fifth Symphony was transferred to the Symphony in E-flat major which Tchaikovsky began and subsequently abandoned in 1892.


On 25 October/6 November 1888, at a concert in the Russian Nobles' Society, Sergey Taneyev and Aleksandr Ziloti performed the second and third movements of the Fifth Symphony in Taneyev's arrangement for two pianos [31].

The first orchestral performance of the Symphony No. 5 took place in Saint Petersburg on 5/17 November 1888 at a concert of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society, conducted by the composer (and repeated in the same city on 12/24 November at the third symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society); the Moscow premiere took place on 10/22 December 1888 at the fifth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, also conducted by him.

On 3/15 March 1889, the Fifth Symphony was performed in Hamburg, conducted by Tchaikovsky [32]. For this performance, Tchaikovsky shortened the last movement: "Made cut in fin[ale] of the symph[ony]", he noted in his diary for 24 February/6 March 1889, and on 27 February/9 March he remarked: "Corrected the parts of the symphony" [33].

Other notable early performances included:

  • Prague, 18/30 November 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • New York, Chickering Hall, 21 February/5 March 1889, conducted by Theodore Thomas
  • Hamburg, 10th Philharmonic Society concert, 3/15 March 1889, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • Manchester, 21 January/2 February 1893, conducted by Charles Hallé
  • London, 17/29 June 1894, conducted by Arthur Nikisch
  • Vienna, 7th Philharmonic Society subscription concert, 18 February/1 March 1896, conducted by Hans Richter
  • Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, subscription concert, 30 November/12 December 1897, conducted by Willem Mengelberg

Critical Reception

The Fifth Symphony was enthusiastically received by Tchaikovsky's friends in Moscow. On 5/17 September, the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "The symphony has received unanimous approval from all my friends: some even say that it's my best work. It's particularly significant that S. I. Taneyev is wholly enthusiastic" [34]. However, his earlier doubts regarding the Fifth Symphony later resurfaced in letters to Nadezhda von Meck: "My new symphony was played twice in Saint Petersburg and once in Prague [35]. I am convinced that this symphony is not a success. There is something so repellent about such excess, insincerity and artificiality" [36]. "With each day that passes I am increasingly certain that my last symphony is not a successful work, and the realisation that it is unsuccessful (or perhaps that my powers are declining) is very distressing to me. The symphony is too colourful, massive, insincere, drawn out and on the whole very unsympathetic... Am I indeed, as they say, written out?... If so, then this is terrible. Whether my misgivings are mistaken or not, regrettably I have concluded that the symphony written in 1888 is poorer than the one written in 1877" [37].

After a performance of the Symphony in Hamburg in March 1889, with which Tchaikovsky was very satisfied, the composer wrote: "The musicians took to the music more and more each time the symphony was played. At rehearsals there was general enthusiasm, flourishes, etc. The concert also went excellently. As a result, I no longer have a bad opinion of the symphony, and like it once more" [38]. "The Fifth Symphony was again performed magnificently, and I have started to love it again; my earlier judgement was undeservedly harsh..." [39].


The first edition of the score was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in 1888. As previously noted, an arrangement of the Fifth Symphony for piano duet was made by Sergey Taneyev [40], and was published by Jurgenson at the same time as the full score.

The full score of the Symphony No. 5 was published in volume 17А of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works, edited by Georgy Kirkor (1963).


Tchaikovsky's manuscript score is now preserved in the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 59) [view].


See: Discography


The Symphony is dedicated to Theodor Avé-Lallemant, director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, whom Tchaikovsky met in Hamburg in January 1888.

On 24 April/6 May 1888, Tchaikovsky told the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg that he was planning "to write a new symphony and to dedicate it to my good friend Grieg" [41]. However, the published score carries only the inscription to Avé-Lallemant, and Tchaikovsky dedicated the overture-fantasia Hamlet to Grieg instead.

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Tchaikovsky's metronome markings are seldom observed, especially in the first movement, which is almost always taken at a much slower tempo than he directs.
  2. Letter 3539 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 28 March/9 April 1888.
  3. Letter 3547 to Nadezhda von Meck, 13/25 April 1888.
  4. Letter 3553 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 April/6 May 1888.
  5. Letter 3551 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 23 April/5 May 1888.
  6. Letter 3563 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 9/21 May 1888.
  7. Letter 3568 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 15/27 May 1888.
  8. Letter 3573 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 19/31 May 1888.
  9. See Notebook No. 4 in Klin House-Museum Archive. In ČW these sketches are attributed to a different, unrealised symphony dating from 1887 or 1888 ( ČW 468).
  10. See Letter 3587 to Vladimir Nápravník, 7/19 June 1888.
  11. Letter 3588 to Nadezhda von Meck, 10/22 June 1888.
  12. See Letter 3597 to Modest Tchaikovsky and Letter 3595 to Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, both 17/29 June 1888.
  13. See letters from Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov to Tchaikovsky, 30 June and 17 October 1888, and Tchaikovsky's replies of 12/24 July (Letter 3612), 4/16 August (Letter 3635) and 27 October/8 November 1888 (Letter 3710).
  14. See Letter 3607 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 1/13 July 1888.
  15. Letter 3600 to Nadezhda von Meck, 22 June/4 July 1888. "Ours" = Symphony No. 4.
  16. Letter 3602 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 26 June/8 July 1888.
  17. Letter 3607 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 1/13 July 1888.
  18. Letter 3609 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 6/18 July 1888.
  19. See Letter 3615 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky and Letter 3612 to Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, both 12/24 July 1888.
  20. Letter 3511 to Nikolay and Aleksandra Hubert, 12/24 July 1888.
  21. Letter 3624 to Nadezhda von Meck, 25 July/6 August 1888.
  22. Letter 3631 to Vladimir Shilovsky, 1/13 August 1888.
  23. Letter from Sergey Taneyev to Tchaikovsky, 2/14 July 1888.
  24. Letter 3637 to Nadezhda von Meck, 7/19 August 1888.
  25. Letter 3644 to Nadezhda von Meck, 14/26 August 1888.
  26. Letter 3645 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 14/26 August 1888.
  27. See Letter 3588 to Nadezhda von Meck, 10/22 June 1888, and Letter 3587 to Vladimir Nápravník, 7/19 June 1888.
  28. Letter 3678 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 September/6 October 1888.
  29. The phrase: "Beneath the reply: No, there is no hope!" could relate to another theme in the bass clef.
  30. Letter 3589 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 11/23 June 1888.
  31. See Московские ведемости, 25 October 1888.
  32. See Letter 3815 to Nadezhda von Meck, and Letter 3814 to Vladimir Davydov, both 5/17 March 1889.
  33. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1923), p. 227.
  34. Letter 3657 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 5/17 September 1888. See also Letter 3670 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 14/26 September 1888, and letters 3661 and 3672 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 7/19 September 1888 and 19 September/1 October 1888.
  35. i.e. on 5/17 and 12/24 November 1888 in Saint Petersburg, and 18/30 November 1888 in Prague.
  36. Letter 3738 to Nadezhda von Meck, 2/14 December 1888.
  37. Letter 3748 to Nadezhda von Meck, 26 December 1888/7 January 1889.
  38. Letter 3818 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 5/17 March 1889.
  39. Letter 3814 to Vladimir Davydov, 5/17 March 1889.
  40. See letters from Sergey Taneyev to Tchaikovsky, 2/14 July and 6/18 August 1888.
  41. Letter 3552 to Edvard Grieg, 24 April/6 May 1888.