This time last week we were on holiday in the US, just leaving Los Angeles and heading off to Vegas. After you have got rid of your hire car, oggled at the people gambling, seen the Grand Canyon and gone to a show, Vegas has it's limit. So you can imagine the joy when we heard that we were delayed for 48 hours by good old normally reliable BA. Now jet lag has hit big time, I already feel like I need another holiday so turning to music gives some respite.
Symphony No 5 in E minor by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was written during May and August 1888 and was first performed in St Petersburg on November 18th with Tchaikovsky conducting. It is one of the composers most popular works particularly the second movement. The symphony was particularly popular during World War II and was often played during the Siege of Leningrad to keep the spirits up. On October 20th 1941 it was played at the city's Philharmonic Hall and was broadcast live to London. As the second movement began, bombs started to fall but the orchestra continued to play to the last note.
Ten years passed between composing his 4th and 5th symphonies, a decade which saw Tchaikovsky's international reputation grow as he finished some of his major works. But as he started he feared that his muse was exhausted. He wrote to his patron Nedezhda von Meck that "I am dreadfully anxious to prove not only to others, but also to myself that I am not yet played out as a composer". But in the spring of 1888 he moved to a new house outside Moscow and found great joy in gardening, this seem to have given him the inspiration he needed and by the end he wrote "it seems to me I have not blundered, that it has turned out well".
Before he began composing he sketched in a notebook a program for the work labelling the theme as a "complete resignation before Fate" and described the first movement as "doubts…..reproaches against xxx". Scholars have constantly scratched their heads as to what xxx could mean and it is thought to be a reference to his homosexuality (which remained a well-kept secret during his life) - whether this is right or not, it is generally agreed that the symphony is about something.
Symphony No 5 does adhere to the classic four movement form, although they are linked together by a theme that keeps reappearing. It is thought that the theme represents "Fate" which he alludes to in his notes. The second movement is a musical icon, few melodies are as immediately memorable as this one nostalgically played on the horn.
The Symphony is coupled with Francesca da Rimini Op 32. Tchaikovsky presents a symphonic tale of Francesca da Rimini, a beauty who was immortalised in Dante's Divine Comedy. It is a symphonic poem (describes a scene) where a noblewoman falls in love with her cruel husbands brother. They are discovered and killed by the husband and condemned to hell. Whereupon in their damnation the lovers are trapped in a violent storm and whirled through the air never to touch the ground again. It is an exhausting work to listen to once you know the story!
The recording I recommend is by the flamboyant and energetic Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel who is the music director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The orchestra comprises of over 200 young musicians aged between 17 and 30 and is the flagship of the orchestral academic programme of the State Foundation for the Venezuelan System of Youth and Child Orchestras. The foundation has over 250,000 members and more than 150 orchestras of which 75% of it's members are below the poverty line.