Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony: Interpreting Music With Empathy

Listening to the Fifth, there is a part of me that sits in awe, while another participates.

In my last article on Tchaikovsky, I explored his life and the themes he grew attached to in his music writing. To grasp a general idea of his symphonic works, jump to Decoding Genius: The Struggle Against Fate in Tchaikovsky’s Last Symphonies. This article will focus more closely on his Fifth Symphony, a phenomenal work that deserves singular appreciation. Listening to his Fifth, there is a part of me that sits in awe, while another participates. Tchaikovsky’s music is always accessible, universally lovable; it is easily incorporated into the soundtrack of life.

Tchaikovsky Portrait
Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov. Credit: Wiki Musique

Homosexuality, a taboo at his time, was something Tchaikovsky struggled to come to terms with throughout his life. (Jackson, 1995.) In a world that made him fear explicit references to his homosexuality even in his personal letters — instead writing “XXX” when talking about it — Tchaikovsky found music to be the most available means of fearless expression.

His references to homosexuality were as explicitly conveyed as he could manage. He twisted the normative musical chords of his time to represent abnormal, even devilish qualities of the music and its narrative — one of such is the “death chord,” which is Tchaikovsky’s use of the diminished-third chord (IV#) to represent a fatal or torturous outcome (Jackson, 1995.) This chord was “unorthodox” in the traditions of diatonic harmony, in which the music was expected to return to or revolve around the diatonic V chord. In the Fifth Symphony, the chord is first introduced in the first movement and reappears in the last, as if reinstating the inescapability of fate — though strangely, the symphony follows a dark-to-light narrative (musically, a minor-to-major progression,) as the composer seems to be undergoing some kind of positive transformation. Whether this is a head-on embracement of his inevitable dark fate, or of a massive hope that some brighter outcome will present itself, is up to the listener. All we know is that the death chord comes up repeatedly in his symphonic works as well as other pieces that also follow a fatal theme, often of forbidden romantic love, such as the Romeo and Juliet Overture and Francesca Da Rimini. The death chord also directly represents Hamlet’s death in the Hamlet Overture.

A manuscript by Tchaikovsky. Credit: Project Gutenburg

In sketching the first movement, Tchaikovsky writes, ‘Introduction. Complete subjection to Destiny or, what is the same thing, the unfathomable ways of Providence. Allegro (1) Murmuring, doubt, lament, reproaches concerning XXX.”

Even with the “sin” of homosexuality predetermined within himself, Tchaikovsky begs his audience for acknowledgment, both of his musical talent and of his humanity. His melodies are stunning in their commitment to beauty, even though sometimes, as his critics like to point out, coming at the cost of a larger symphonic plan.

Tchaikovsky in Odessa, where he conducted five concerts in January 1893. PHOTO Wikipedia

As an example, in the second movement, the French Horn solo is poignant yet courageous in its mournful voice — this phrase is an icon which the Fifth is most known for. While Tchaikovsky’s talent for intricate lyricism shines through, it’s also a testament to the dedicated methods of horn training in Russian music schools at the time (Hall, 2019.) In Russia, training focused on the natural horn, which could only play the harmonic series, while ignoring the more progressive derivations of brass instruments such as the valve horn. Tchaikovsky was well aware of such range limitations and, rather than demand technical somersaults on the horn, stayed faithful to the Russian teachings that established the horn’s ideal role to “portray the perfect human.”

The St. Petersburg conservatory, in particular, preferred its musicians to interpret the music exactly as it was written. Since Tchaikovsky’s Fifth would premier in St. Petersburg, he may have had this in mind as he dotted the page with his most precise and personal stylistic intentions. Even now, as you listen to the Fifth, you are transcending time and space to hear the horn in the same tones and colors with which Tchaikovsky painted. Among his iconic melodies, spanning from his ballets to Shakespeare, the French horn solo in the Fifth is perhaps where you hear Tchaikovsky sing the clearest still.

french horn
Tchaikovsky French Horn. Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

Previous critics of Tchaikovsky have critiqued the Fifth based on “a tendency to view fate as an inhuman, asexual, blind, and malevolent force.” In this light, Beethoven’s Fifth, perhaps, with its unwavering motif of doom, may sound more “fateful” compared to the uncertain, lyrical flows strung out by Tchaikovskys’ Fifth. But fate, to Tchaikovsky, is not the equivalent of blind chance: it is instead something heavily weighted, gendered — it is skewed toward those with certain social labels. His Fifth Symphony, then, may not have been such an innocent depiction of some divine fate, but a protest against prejudices in the earthly world. The triumphant ending in the major key in the last movement, with the use of the death chord, is not so strange anymore. Humans, not God, are the ultimate torment to Pyotr — death, then, is the torment’s end.

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony by conductor Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

Jetset Times in your inbox

Sign-up for our newsletter

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy and European users agree to the data transfer policy.