We are on the cusp of all-Christmas-music-all-the-time, so you bet your ass you’re going to be hearing a lot of Tchaikovsky on public radio. You for sure know Tchaikovsky because as an American child, The Nutcracker Ballet is a purely inescapable cultural landmark. You know Trepak? Well, buckle up, babies, it’s non-stop Trepak for the next month.
But Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was wonderful and prolific — stretching himself between the traditional style of Russian classical music and the Western-style Romantic music. When he was growing up in Votkinsk, an industrial town, his access to musical education in Russian was relatively scarce, so he went to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which valued a Western-style of education. Even if you haven’t taken any kind of history class since your sophomore year of high school, you know that the fundamental cultural debate of just about everything in Russia was: “we’re extremely Russian, but we also want to be Western European, except also not.” This was certainly the case with classical music as well.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian classical music, and symphonies in particular, were very self-contained. You didn’t see this carryover of theme or melodies across all movements. It was almost as if each movement was just its own thing under a giant umbrella calling it a “symphony.” On the other side of the continent, however, you had Beethoven, who would begin a symphony by establishing a theme (or more often, a couple of themes) and having it return again and again through different instruments or keys or tempos.
So Tchaikovsky found himself right smack in the middle of this. Everything he learned in a formal music education said, “write a theme and bring it back over and over again so people learn to love it,” and everything he knew from the culture around him said, “do whatever you want, this is Russia and our big rule that we have no rules, but we also have a million rules.” With that in mind, the Tchaikovsky piece I want to focus on this week is his Fifth Symphony, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted under Daniel Barenboim, written for or about Fate, which is, um, heavy-handed and an extremely Russian thing to write about.
The first movement, the Andante — Allegro con anima (slow… but also animated), introduces the theme of the symphony right off the bat. It’s the opening refrain, the A theme. And I’ll be honest: the reason I love this symphony is that I love this theme. Tchaikovsky excelled at creating a damn good melody, and it’s why his music is played so widely throughout the world to this day. The melody comes in at the start of the first movement, played slowly and wistfully by a clarinet. It’s mourning. It’s allowed to feel long and slow and sad, but by around the 2:30 mark, we’re already seeing a revision of the theme: it’s a march. It’s just an extremely versatile melody, catchy and complex.
The second movement, the Andante cantabile (slow but singable) focuses on the B theme, played by a horn solo, that comes in around the 0:50 mark. Is it really singable, as the name of the movement suggests? I don’t know. Not in my voice. Nor is the oboe solo at the 2:15 mark, but they are memorable. At the 10:18 mark in the second movement, the theme comes rip-roaring back in an extremely “Surprise, bitch!!” kind of way.
The third movement, shockingly is, is a waltz! We’ve seen other third movements as scherzos, which are upbeat and dance-like, but not specifically intended to be waltzes. Waltzes were extremely Tchaikovsky’s whole deal. If you close your eyes, the waltz in the Fifth Symphony sounds like a second cousin of the Waltz of the Flowers. It’s light, it’s melodic, with long runs on the flute and violin, known as the trio section. Here’s where it sounds most like a scherzo, or just someone whimsically running through the cobblestoned streets of imperial Russia. In the final minute or so of the waltz, we get one more reminder of the main theme of the symphony before it barrels into…
This is one of my all-time favorite conclusions to any symphony ever. This is a twelve-minute-long piece that never feels that way. It takes you on a journey, man. For the first two and a half minutes, you’re reminded of the stern, serious main theme before BAM, 2:50: timpani roll, strings, and we’re off. Some personal bias? This is one of the most fun timpani parts of all time. It’s loud, it’s fun, the rolls get to dramatically usher in new parts. You get to sort of just hit drums back and forth, which is the least technical way I could describe it, but that’s what it feels like! By this point in the symphony, you’ve heard this core melody so many times that you know it by heart. Is it possible to know how a movement’s going to go without hearing it before? I’d argue it is.
This finale also does sort of an ending fake-out. I mean, obviously you know it’s not really ending two minutes before Spotify tells you it is, by at the 9:10 minute mark, it does all feel pretty finite. There’s a breath — like, take a second before we really barrel into the end of this — and then we’re back with the timpani and wide, sweeping strings playing that core melody. The main theme is now triumphant where it was once mournful and quiet. It’s been reclaimed, tonally, as a fanfare. Of Fate itself? Maybe? I don’t know what Tchaikovsky was thinking. I just know that it bangs. The final thirty seconds of this, I’m just like, “yes, thank you, amazing, slay, etc.” You will get sick of The Nutcracker; you won’t get sick of this.
Fran Hoepfner is a writer who used to be a musician, but not in an acoustic guitar sense, more in the the movie Whiplash sense. As kids her age discovered the popular music of the early ’00s , Fran spent 10–15 hours a week in private lessons for piano or playing timpani in several Chicagoland youth symphonies. Because of that, she didn’t discover pop music until 2008, and now her music library is almost exclusively classical. You should listen to more classical music, not for any self-important reason, but just because it’s more accessible than you think it is. Also it’s very good.