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8.550716 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 / The Storm
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No.5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age often he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally accepted.
As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the West European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal.
The Fifth Symphony was written in 1888, and regarded by Tchaikovsky with his usual critical diffidence. "Having played my symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have decided it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated colour, some insincerity of invention, which the public instinctively recognises", he wrote, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck. The work was first performed in St. Petersburg under the composer's direction on 17th November, 1888, and repeated a week later. It achieved considerable success, in spite of the reservations of some critics, and was to form part of the programme to be conducted by the composer in Moscow and on a tour of Europe.
While the Fifth Symphony has no declared programme, Tchaikovsky's own notes suggest that some personal extra-musical ideas were in his mind: "Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable decrees of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, lamentations, reproaches against XXX. (II) Shall I throw myself into the arms of Faith??" A "Providence" or "Fate" theme introduces the symphony and re-appears, in one form or another, in all four movements.
Ostrovsky's play The Storm, written in 1859, is set in a Russian provincial town and deals with the tragedy of the young woman Katerina, married to a man dominated by his mother and then in love with another, to whom she gives herself, during the absence of her husband on business. Terrified by a storm, she admits her guilt to her husband, and then is driven by her mother-in-law to drown herself in the Volga. The play was the later source of Janácek's opera Kát'a Kabanová. Elements of the story are used by Tchaikovsky in his Overture to the play, written in the summer of 1860. The folk-song of the introduction leads to a subject that prefigures the storm, followed by a suggestion of Katerina's illicit love, in a tripartite sonata-allegro form. The conflict in Katerina's heart is reflected in the central development, while the final recapitulation culminates in storm and death.
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