Virtual Music Hour

  Tchaikovsky Archive

  Introducing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor

  Listen to the Music

Movement 1

Movement 2

Movement 3

Movement 4

This week's Virtual Music Hour is dedicated to Liberty Global.


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Riddled with self-doubt, writer’s block, and periods of illness while working on it, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky nevertheless composed an enduring piece of music for full orchestra in his Fifth Symphony. It is a great example of Tchaikovsky’s gift for creating music with a strong sense of drama. From the slow brooding opening of the first movement to the triumphant march music in the finale, it engages us in considering our own messy and beautiful human experience all the way through.

  • Tchaikovsky composed a total of six symphonies for full orchestra. He wrote his Symphony No. 5 in the span of just 4 months in the summer of 1888. The arguably more popular Fourth and Sixth symphonies were written 10 years prior and 5 years later, respectively. The Fifth Symphony was premiered in St. Petersburg, conducted by Tchaikovsky himself, just 3 months after he completed it. He was 48 years old.
  • Symphony No. 5 in E minor lasts for about 45 minutes and, as the Beethoven and Dvořák symphonies from our previous two broadcasts, is in four sections called movements. Each movement has its own unique characteristics and function, but similar to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 from last weekend, Tchaikovsky uses a cyclical technique of a recurring ‘motto’ theme in each movement which ties the whole piece of music together.
  • Despite initial critical responses being mixed, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 has enjoyed overall success and enduring popularity. It became especially popular to perform and record during World War II as a symbol of triumph over conflict.
  • Like the “Goin’ Home” melody from Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the primary melody from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony inspired songwriter/arrangers Andre Kostelanetz, Mack David, and Mack Davis to set words to it, creating the song “Moon Love”. This song was recorded by many jazz giants of the day, but most famously was arranged by Nelson Riddle for Frank Sinatra’s 1966 album Moonlight Sinatra.

    Principal Horn Michael Thornton performs the famous solo here:

  • Tchaikovsky’s score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and the usual large string section of violins, violas, cellos, and basses. No signature splashy cymbals, nor any percussion other than timpani in this one!

Here is a listening map that can guide you through the piece. Read it in advance or while you’re listening!

Movement 1

Andante - Allegro con anima
In English:  Medium pace – Quick with spirit

We start with a darkly colored slow introduction carried by low strings and winds, and a melody in the clarinet.

2:33 - We get moving with a swirling march that builds to a brightly colored main theme. This music takes us through texture and mood shifts with plucking strings, musical conversations between instrument groups, and outbursts of energy from the brass.

8:05 - Listen for our super rad bassoons who start a big musical debate with the horns and eventually involve the rest of the orchestra. At the 9-minute mark things calm down a bit and the solo bassoon offers a more conciliatory gesture that continues through clarinet, flute, and finally to the strings.

For the remaining five or so minutes the music churns back and forth between restless, contemplative, or energetic moments, and then finishes by winding back down to the dark colored sounds of the opening.

Despite the overall success and enduring popularity of the Fifth Symphony, initial critical responses weren’t great. One Russian critic managed to be blunt and yet still positive – “The Fifth Symphony is the weakest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, but nevertheless it is a striking work, taking a prominent place not only among the composer’s output but among Russian works in general.” A downright fiery complaint came from a Boston reviewer, regarding the Finale movement, “The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!” Following the second performance Tchaikovsky wrote about the ending of the piece, “I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure.” However, after a year and many new performances he wrote “The Fifth Symphony was again performed magnificently, and I have started to love it again; my earlier judgement was undeservedly harsh.”

Consider resilience and the concept of failure as a doorway to success.

  • Can you put yourself in Tchaikovsky’s shoes?
  • What do you think might have contributed to his ability to overcome self-doubt and harsh criticism of his creative work?

Tchaikovsky is well known for his dramatic works such as the ballet Swan Lake and opera Queen of Spades. Much of his symphonic literature seems to rely on a well-developed sense of drama, even though it is non-programmatic (doesn’t support a storyline or linear concept). This symphony is full of intense dramatic moments as well as lighter ones.

Let’s explore some ways in which Tchaikovsky conveys these moods or dramatic moments in his Fifth Symphony.

  1. Lead a discussion or consider how music can convey drama. Focus on elements such as tempo (speed), rhythms, dynamics (loudness/softness), and orchestration (instrument choices and combinations). For example, what instrument(s) might best be used to evoke surprise? What dynamics would you choose to represent action, or a moment of great suspense? What kinds of rhythms might best convey joy or sorrow? If possible, write down some of these answers and ideas for comparison to Tchaikovsky’s later when you listen to the performance.
  2. Consider making transitions from one mood or dramatic moment to another using some of the ideas generated in the first exercise. How can we effectively “get from here to there” musically? What might two very contrasting moments require that similar ones might not? Sudden shifts? A break in sound? Could the transition itself be thought of as a dramatic moment? In what ways?
  3. Have some creative fun! Brainstorm a basic description of two musical moods and the transition between them. [For example: angry fast music in the whole orchestra which becomes slow and more sparse until only the clarinet and triangle are left playing a simple tune]. Now lead your group (however big or small!) through an improvisation of your description using clapped rhythms, instruments (homemade is okay!), or voices. This may take some planning, but doesn’t need to achieve “perfection” in order to work. In fact, the sillier and/or more dramatic the better!

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around elements of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. Sing along to the melodies as your ear learns them, move and dance to the unique rhythms and character of each movement, listen for the way instrument sounds are woven together and pieced apart, observe how dramatic moments are created, or just turn the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure!

Have a discussion afterward.

  • How does this music make you feel? What musical details or techniques evoked those feelings for you?
  • Did your ears notice anything in particular that was surprising, soothing, exciting, expected?
  • Is it time to get a better set of speakers so you can pump up the Colorado Symphony jams even more?



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


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