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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)


Composed in the summer of 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was written after a ten-year hiatus from the genre. In letters dating from May and June of 1888 to his brother Modest and his patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky professed difficulty in finding his stride, but by August he had completed the work. Although the Fifth Symphony is not programmatic—that is, it does not explicitly tell a story—like Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth readily lends itself to a biographical interpretation that seems to resonate with the composer’s personal and professional struggles.

By 1888, Tchaikovsky had achieved renown as Russia’s leading composer, but even international success did not assuage his insecurities. In his private life, the composer grappled with the fiasco of his marriage, which fell apart within weeks, as well as with his homosexuality. The theme of struggle appears as a creative idea in Tchaikovsky’s notes; reading the Fifth Symphony as a larger narrative of one’s contest with fate is all the more tempting given that Tchaikovsky explicitly described in a letter to von Meck the role of fate in his previous symphony. Vacillating from lyrical grace to violent outbursts to triumphant exclamations, the Fifth Symphony seems to provide a musical analogue to the composer’s tumultuous emotional life.

Though audiences were enraptured by the work, some critics thought the finale bombastic, and even Tchaikovsky himself called the symphony “over-exaggerated.” The composer later admitted, “My earlier judgement was undeservedly harsh.” Today, the symphony is one of the most beloved of Tchaikovsky’s compositions, and indeed, of the orchestral repertoire.


  • The “fate motif” in the LONG-short-short pattern that reappears throughout the symphony—the clarinets introduce this important figure in the first movement with a solemn melody written in the low register; it reappears as a dignified march in the finale
  • The tender horn solo that emerges from the mournful string introduction to the second movement, transforming into a duet—first with the clarinet, then with the oboe
  • The elegant waltz of the third movement reminiscent of the composer’s ballet music, and the energetic conclusion that dispels the momentary encroachment of darker forces


Three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Notes on the music by Emily Shyr.