1888: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, age 48

Mr. Peabody Says:

From HERE to 9:52 Tchaikovsky’s development section uses every possible key, all 12 of them, with a major, minor or seven chord. There is a combination of circle of 5ths and sneaky morphing. This is why I call development sections “playtime”. It is where composers are most inventive.

Leopold Stokowski/New Philharmonia Orchestra

  1. Andante – Allegro con anima (E minor) – Molto più tranquillo (D major – E major) 15:48
  2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza (B minor – D major)  15:05
  3. Valse. Allegro moderato (A major) (Trio in F♯ minor) 6:38
  4. Finale: Andante maestoso (E major) – Allegro vivace (E minor) – Meno Mosso (E major) 12:58


  •  piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle
  • strings

1st movement: E minor

It’s almost 16 minutes long, so if each movement were so long the whole symphony would be over an hour. It has a slow intro. Then the 1st theme is only a bit faster but gradually speeds up and intensifies. 2nd theme is in D major, which already is unusual. Normally a 2nd theme in a minor movement will move to the relative major, in this case G major, or to the tonic major, E major. So moving to D major is unexpected, and different. He ends the the standard expo but with no repeat.

Then the development starts, and he runs a major, minor or seven chord in every possible key, all 12 of them. I’ve never seen that mentioned by anyone, but they are all there. It’s a combination of circle of 5ths and sneaky morphing.

For the recap the 1st theme is about the same, but he move to E major for the 2nd theme, which is traditional. He’s in major, but he’s not through. The coda slips to C7 and then G from which he can slip right back to Em to end in E minor.

2nd movement: B minor – D major

This is almost as long at around 15 minutes. A common move is to the relative major or to tonic major, so move to G major or E major. But he starts out with Bm to G to D. It’s a bit more complicated, but that’s how he gets to D major. He stays there a couple minutes. But then he slides to F# major, which is a double morph. Then he slides back to D major again. It’s more complicated, but that’s the gist. And even though he slips and slides around, he’s still in D major. Next he goes to F#m, which keeps him in F# minor for a bit. What happens next is too complicated to describe, but he gets to an F chord, that wants to go to Em. He slides around more and settles in to C# minor, but then slides to A7/G and back to D major. He drives to a triumphant ending in that key, interrupted by more turbulence, and finally ends quietly in D major

3rd movement: A major

This is a bit under seven minutes long, so the shortest movement. It is also much simpler in harmony, sort of a relief from the tension of the first two movements.

4th movement: E major

The final movement is just about 13 minutes long. It starts out in sunny E major, moves to E minor, then finishes in E major.

The story:

It is the 2nd of three monumental symphonies. There are six symphonies in all, and the first three have been largely overlooked until fairly recently, but considering the usual idiotic critics who always impede everything, this is not surprising. Even the last three symphonies were often badly reviewed. Today that seems completely impossible, since these last three symphonies are among the most popular symphonies ever written and always get a huge positive reaction from any audience.

Tchaikovsky, caught between two rival camps:

He could not win. His own teachers criticized him for not writing in the old, European manner, yet the nationalistic movement to write in a purely Russian manner often criticized him for not being “Russian” enough.

The Five criticized him heavily at first…

It took time, but eventually he was accepted, though never fully a part of this group. Today the idea that this quintessential Russian composer, beloved all over the world and most of all in Russia, was accused of being not “Russian” enough.

Stokowski’s amazing relationship to this symphony…

He was born in 1882, only 42 years after Tchaikovsky was born. When Tchaikovsky died, Stokowski was already 11 years old. He made a recording back in 1923, and although the recording sounds painfully primitive now, you can hear that his ideas remained unchanged over the rest of his life. He was 41 at that time, and he was one of the first people in the world to understand the importance of recordings.

30 years later, in 1953, he made a more modern recording. This newer recording sounds wonderful right now, and I just found it two days ago. It is a miracle. It is a bit narrower than modern recordings in its spaciousness, but my friend Louie tells me that modern recordings techniques were almost completely what they are today by the early 50s. You could not tell that from the recordings that were available because what people used to play records on was at least a decade behind. There was no stereo, only mono, with heavy tone arms and needles that literally ruined records while they were playing them. But the original tapes, which we never heard, were very advanced, and you can find the 1953 recording on YouTube. It’s almost as good as the one from 1966, sonically, and may be the absolute best in terms of the performance. Stokowski was 70 years old when this later recording was made.

Phase 4, another step forward in recording ideas…

I once owned this, so I bought it not too long after it was released. It was called “Phase 4” and it used very new recording techniques. One of my favorite recordings from any era, it was made in 1966, when Stokowski was 84 years old, and 43 years after his 1923 recording. He never stopped rethinking everything about sound and was still evolving as a musician in his mid 90s.

The Phase 4 system was by no means perfect, and some of the recordings were over-saturated and had other problems. But in many ways they were the forerunners of what is being done right now, with spot-mikes all over the place allowing conductors incredible control over balance and the placement of instruments as we hear them.

Not easy to find:

It was actually hard to track down all the movements because, for some reason, they are all separate and not labeled with names that were easy to locate with a simple search. This is the “needle in the haystack” problem of YouTube. Just about anything you can imagine is there, but first you have to know that it exists,  then you have to be lucky enough to find it. These videos are are pure gold. Once upon a time you had to pay a lot of money just to buy the record. If anything these videos sound better than my old record because I did not have a very expensive sound system, and in those days that’s the only way that vinyl sounded really good, with a very good and a very expensive sound system.

2 thoughts on “1888: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, age 48

  1. The combination of this piece by Tchaikovski, and Stokowski conducting it to bring out the right nuance and voice of instruments, is perfect. I do not have the ears to be able to recognize that something has moved from this key to that key, but I am sensitive to how the music “changes colour” and unexpectedly, and delightfully.

  2. I found this music to be very enjoyable. The theme in Movement 2 was familiar to me. I had only known it as the song ,”Moon Love”, not realizing that it was part of this wonderful symphony.

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