A song, a dance and the spirit of Russia

© Charles Thibo

Few symphonies have such a characteristic introduction – once you’ve heard it, you will recognize it at once. And from the texture of the introduction you will know the name of the composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky. I marvel at this symphony’s beauty, at its dynamics, its melodic lines, its lyricism – a song, a dance, all imbued by the spirit of Russia: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64.  And I love the recording by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev.

In April 1888 the composer had retired to the countryside in Klin, close to Moscow, in order to write another symphony. However, once he had got there, he felt no inspiration at all. “Do I have nothing to say anymore?” he complained to his brother Modest in a letter dated May 15. The English saying “He tried too hard” comes to my mind – a not-so-uncommon experience for Tchaikovsky.

“No worse than the others”

He had noted a few themes earlier that year during a trip to Tbilisi in Georgia, and by June, he started to compose for earnest: The muse had found her way to the estate of Frolovskoye. “I worked well all this time”, he wrote to his patron Nadezha von Meck. By November he was done. “Thanks God, [the symphony] is no worse than the others”, he wrote to his friend and fellow composer Sergey Taneyev.

I am tempted to say it is one of the best symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote. The premiere on November 5, 1888 in St. Petersburg met an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response by the audience and one of the explanations is the fact that the symphony is so easy to recognize. The beginning of the first movement and the finale are iconic – a very distinct theme, easy to sing, easy to remember, repeated in each movement.

The harmonic progression within and between the different parts is flawless and so is the expressive power.  The work has its somber-solemn and energetic textures, in the first movement for example. It has tender, deeply melancholic moments like the second movement – andante cantabile. Cantabile! And then the valses, ah, the valses. The third movement – a beautiful dance that could come straight out of a St. Petersburg ball-room.

Damn the critics!

Obviously, the most unnerving critic was Cesar Cui, from the “Mighty Five”*. He deconstructed the symphony and came up with his stereotype argument against Tchaikovsky, namely that the composer considered sound as an end to itself and not as the means, the music just being an excuse to present sonic exuberance. Another critic was more explicit but thought along the same lines than Cui. Both reproached Tchaikovsky to have written music without substance, a glittering, but empty shell, a piece bordering vulgarity in order to please the audience. How fortunate we are that nobody listened to those critics, and especially not to Cui, who knew nothing about composing.

One can only hope that today’s music critics are a little better educated. My personal conviction is that the world could well do without music critics. De gustibus non est disputandum. It would be more helpful to explain to the audience what a piece is about, how it came into being, instead of measuring a composition against a necessarily arbitrary set of criteria. Damn the critics!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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3 thoughts on “A song, a dance and the spirit of Russia”

  1. Nice post. This is the only Tchaikovsky symphony I truly like. My favorite version is Neeme Järvi on BID by the way.

    And while I’m obviously dabbling in reviewing music myself, I agree that critics of they don’t accept that they offer nothing else but a subjective point of view can be really detrimental.

  2. Excellent, informative piece.
    A few years ago, I was involved in the production of a London workshop of a new play called ‘Tchaikovsky’ by Harris W. Freedman. It explored not only his relationship with Madame von Meck but also with his brother Modeste. A very good play.

  3. I absolutely agree with you about music critics. After enjoying a concert I find the critic has panned it. I fail to understand what they want. They are all merely know-nothings who are puffed up with a false sense of self-importance.

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