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With his fifth symphony, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky yet again demonstrated why he was one of the romantic era's finest composers - but what kind of critical reaction did the work get, and how did it affect him?
For much of his life, Tchaikovsky was inspired on both an emotional and financial level by his patron, Nadezhda von Meck – whom he quite astonishingly never met. Indeed, this was a condition of her patronage.
In the summer of 1888, Tchaikovsky wrote one of his many letters to her, in which he commented, "I don’t know if I have already written that I have decided to write a symphony. At first progress was very arduous, but now illumination seems to have descended upon me. We shall see!" The work in question was this, his Symphony No.5. It had been ten years since the fairly unsuccessful premiere of the Symphony No.4 – admittedly punctuated by the composition of the Manfred Symphony in 1885 – and Tchaikovsky worked painstakingly hard to ensure that his latest symphonic creation received a favourable response.
Sadly, the reaction to the four-movement Symphony No.5 was, at best, muted. Tchaikovsky felt incredibly dejected, even going so far as to distance himself from it for quite some time. After his death, however, the work grew in popularity, with audiences and critics alike acknowledging Tchaikovsky’s great skill as an orchestrator and his powerful evocation of the idea of fate throughout the symphony. Today, it stands as one of his most loved large-scale creations.
Illustration: Mark Millington