“There is something repulsive about it.”
This was the composer’s comment about his Fifth Symphony after returning from a European tour conducting it.
True, Tchaikovsky was often neurotic about his compositions, announcing his joy with them to his brother, Modest, then doubting them — and himself — after performances. Schizy. He could fly like a swan, but once on the ground, he would waddle.
Waddling is one thing, but what is “repulsive” about the Fifth? Some clues present themselves.
In a notebook page dated 13 April 1888, the year of its composition, Tchaikovsky outlines a scenario for the first movement: “Introduction: Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro: (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.”
A hopeful beginning. In opening the work, Tchaikovsky cuts to the core. The opening theme in the low clarinets recurs in every movement, commenting on other themes, or challenging them.
Thus, the opening theme carries a narrative function beyond its musical one, and it doesn’t take much imagination to hear it as embodying the Fate Tchaikovsky invokes in his primordial program. So let’s call it the “Fate theme”, and see how it functions throughout the piece.
Tchaikovsky always wore his heart on his compositional sleeve: the sublime slow movement is the expressive core of the whole work. The opening string chorale before the famous horn solo warns the audience to take this movement seriously, even religiously.
Halfway through this erotic movement, the orchestra begins a stringendo and crescendo culminating in fortississimo (fff) trumpets blaring out the Fate theme. It’s worse than hearing the steps of your parents entering the room when you are making out with your lover, or a cuckolded spouse returning home early. There’s only one possible effect of this interruption: to scare the hell out of the audience, and make it regret its emotional vulnerability. “Oh no you don’t. You’ll be sorry.” The avenging angel bares his sword.
If that’s the way the Fate theme can function, what is the meaning of its triumphant takeover of the last movement? Critics have always found this the least successful. Is it because it’s overwrought and only barely convincing? Protesting too much, and as such, repulsive?
I think there is little mystery what the XXX refers to in Tchaikovsky’s note to Modest. Throughout their extensive correspondence, both closeted gay men dealt in code with their “sickness”. X, it was called, or sometimes Z, in unmistakable contexts. But in this case, there is more to it than that. What was going on for Tchaikovsky at this time?
It had been three years since Tchaikovsky had produced a major orchestral work — his Manfred Symphony. Manfred, a strange, programmatic inclusion in the series of numbered symphonies. Why Manfred?
Manfred is the subject of a dramatic poem by Byron, the story of a Swiss nobleman tortured by mysterious guilt. “Thou lovedst me/Too much,” he declares concerning his sister, “as I loved thee: we were not made/To torture thus each other, though it were/The deadliest sin to love as we have loved.”
Tchaikovsky was sympathetic to Byron’s love for his half-sister, and this for him brought up the dangerous theme of incest. At the time of writing Manfred, Tchaikovsky was already deeply in love with his nephew, Bob, his sister’s son, then 15, Tchaikovsky’s favorite age for sex with boys. The composer dedicated his Sixth Symphony to him, and awarded him the lion’s share of his will.
Problematical family dynamics. XXX indeed, and a perfect vehicle for Tchaikovsky’s brooding about his sexuality. The noble outsider, rejected by a conventional world. He later disowned the piece, calling it “abominable…I loathe it deeply.” Sound familiar? Repulsive?
And what followed the Fifth? His fantasy overture, Hamlet, overlapping the scoring of the Fifth, and beginning again with a “Fate” theme. Over the first page, Tchaikovsky had written. “To be or not to be?” The Fifth — sandwiched between Manfred and Hamlet.
Within five years, Tchaikovsky was dead, probably by his own hand or tongue, possibly of arsenic, possibly of cholera, nine days after premiering his death-haunted Sixth Symphony, his Requiem.