Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies: A Whistle-Stop Tour

With our new Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle with Vladimir Jurowski now available to stream and download (and purchase as a good old-fashioned CD box set too) there’s a whole lot of Tchaikovsky to get through and it can be a bit overwhelming. We’ve put together this handy cheat sheet, giving you the low-down on each Symphony so you can chart your own course through all of this amazing music. Let’s get started.

Portrait of Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kusnezow, 1893

Symphony №1, ‘Winter Daydreams’ (1866)

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is his earliest notable work, written after he accepted his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory aged just 26. Listening to this bright, characterful music it sounds as though it must have been enormous fun to compose, although it was actually anything but; early on in its development a bad review of another work caused Tchaikovsky’s confidence to plummet, and the subsequent pressure it put on him to deliver the goods with this symphony, coupled with overwork and sleepless nights, caused him to suffer something close to a nervous breakdown. While composing he struggled to align his strengths as a creator of expansive melodies with his desire to write music that adhered to traditional Western rules of symphonic development. He consulted his two former teachers Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba, hoping for encouragement, but neither of them had anything good to say and refused to perform any of the symphony. Eventually, after resubmitting the work to them with requested changes and still failing to impress them he had the good sense to throw out most of their revisions, and forged ahead with the work as he’d originally intended it.

What to listen out for: The second movement displays Tchaikovsky’s now-legendary abilities as a melodist; it’s a continuous 11-and-a-bit minute stream of gorgeous tunes. And the fantastically over-the-top finale either builds up to an exhilarating crescendo, or is just ridiculous noisy pomp, depending on who you ask.

Symphony №2, ‘Little Russian’ (1872)

Tchaikovsky wrote his Second Symphony while on his summer holidays in Ukraine, and sure enough this is Tchaikovsky at his sunniest. The symphony is also known for its use of traditional folk melodies , which won Tchaikovsky the rare approval of Russia’s nationalistic composing supergroup ‘The Five’, who were usually annoyed at other Russian musicians for supposed over-reliance on Western musical models. In this symphony not only is Tchaikovsky’s use of folk tunes very typical of Russian musical nationalism, but so is his distinctive treatment of this material, simply repeating the melodies in different orchestrations while the musical background is developed instead. This use of closed units of melody repeating over and over is in complete contrast to traditional Western principles of symphonic writing, where open-ended motifs are transformed and developed to build drama as the piece goes on.

What to listen out for: This is Tchaikovsky at his most chirpy and upbeat, so enjoy it while it lasts! There isn’t much you can do except gawp as the freewheeling third movement Scherzo scampers past in a whirl of dancing energy. And following the grand fanfare that opens the final movement, the Ukrainian folk song The Crane is brilliantly treated to a long series of increasingly sparkly and elaborate orchestrations.

Tchaikovsky’s mentor and all-round Russian super-musician Anton Rubinstein (unknown painter)

Symphony №3 ‘Polish’ (1875)

Continuing his habit for summertime symphony work, Tchaikovsky composed his Third Symphony over the course of just three months while on holiday, and it was very well received upon its premiere in Moscow that November. However the Third has subsequently attracted a reputation as being something of a weak link among the other numbered symphonies, and it remains the least-often recorded and performed. Critics have taken it to task for a perceived lack of cohesion between the movements (of which there are five, rather than the usual four), and an underwhelming symphonic structure that fails to build to an overall climax. It’s also been criticised for a lack of distinctive musical identity amongst the work’s disjointed elements, which could have been the result of Tchaikovsky erring on the side of caution after receiving a severe dressing-down from his mentor Anton Rubinstein over supposed flaws in his First Piano Concerto. However the symphony does have its fans, and some have suggested making sense of the Third by viewing it as having an unusual symmetrical structure, with the central heavyweight third movement book-ended by brief scherzos, and the wandering outer movements completing the picture.

What to listen out for: Tchaikovsky expressed particular satisfaction with the two scherzos, and acknowledged that the second especially was ‘very difficult’, requiring very fast runs and swift exchanges between strings and woodwinds, and sudden interjections from brass. Despite the energetic material the movement remains quite hushed throughout, with muted strings and no obvious climax. It’s a curious and fascinating combination that conjures up a special kind of magical and capricious atmosphere, whatever you make of its place within the symphony as a whole.

Symphony №4 (1878)

Tchaikovsky began his Fourth Symphony whilst still dealing with the break-up of his disastrous and short-lived marriage with a former student, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and suffering from writer’s block and depression. Unsurprisingly, the resulting work is an emotionally intense affair, defined by its famous opening ‘fate’ motif intoned by menacing brass, which, as Tchaikovsky put it, represents ‘the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness’. In a remarkable move, Tchaikovsky turned this symphony into a unified whole (to devastating expressive effect) by bringing back this opening ‘fate’ motif in the final movement, an idea which he would pursue more fully in subsequent symphonic works. However, the Fourth isn’t all existential angst; elsewhere the music moves with cautious optimism, such as in the gorgeous oboe melody and subsequent development that opens the second movement, proving yet again Tchaikovsky’s extraordinary melody-writing abilities. Despite such moments of brilliance, like many of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies the Fourth was initially met with some criticism (and even outright hostility) both in Russia and abroad. Quite unusually though, Tchaikovsky himself didn’t end up coming to dislike it, as he did so many other of his works, writing: ‘I adore terribly this child of mine; it is one of only a few works with which I have not experienced disappointment.’

What to listen out for: The return of the opening fate motif in the final movement is the work’s shattering climax, but you need to work up to it from the beginning to appreciate its full impact. It barges back in during a raucous folk celebration, making for a wild finale that’s equal parts exhilarating and devastating.

Leading Romantic poet Lord Byron, author of dramatic poem Manfred (portrait by Richard Westall, 1813)

‘Manfred’ Symphony (1885)

Tchaikovsky didn’t write six symphonies, he wrote seven! Due to its unwieldy length, complexity and, for some, downright oddness, plus the fact that it’s Tchaikovsky’s only unnumbered symphony, Manfred often gets forgotten, even though there’s plenty of wonderfully dark and dramatic music here. The history of the Symphony’s development is long and complicated; it was initially the idea of critic Vladimir Stasov, as a kind of Russian answer to Berlioz’s popular programme symphony Harold in Italy. Tchaikovsky wasn’t Stasov’s first (or even second) choice to compose the work, and only took on the job reluctantly after a great deal of pestering, unconvinced that it could come to be anything other than a poor imitation of Berlioz. Following the plot of Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, the symphony is remarkably effective in conjuring up the required angst-ridden atmosphere, depicting its titular character wandering alone through the Alps, haunted by guilt for past crimes and happening upon strange and supernatural scenes.

What to listen out for: The imposing opening melody, immediately heard in low woodwinds at the start of the first movement, is the key to the whole symphony, as it represents Manfred himself and is referred to and transformed throughout as he undertakes his lonely journey.

Symphony №5 (1888)

Building on the precedent established by his Fourth Symphony ten years earlier, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth also features a recurring melodic idea, which is similarly ominous and again often dubbed the ‘fate’ motif. The difference is that rather than just appearing in the first and last movements, this ‘fate’ motif ties the movements together by popping up in all four, and is gradually transformed as it moves through the symphony, from a dark and funereal clarinet solo in the very opening all the way through to grand and triumphant strings in the finale. Unfortunately some have considered this ecstatic finish to be overly brash and insincere, and after a couple of performances Tchaikovsky himself came to conclusion that the work was ultimately a failure, although the fact that it’s gone on to become one of his most popular and enduring works says otherwise.

What to listen out for: The appearance of the ‘fate’ motif in every movement makes for a fun game of musical ‘Where’s Wally?’, but there are also plenty of other bits of extraordinary music along the way. The glowing horn solo that floats over a dark sea of strings at the opening of the second movement has to be one of the most amazing moments in Tchaikovsky’s whole cycle of symphonies.

Opening of the final movement of Symphony №6 (autograph score)

Symphony №6, ‘Pathétique’ (1892)

Many seem to agree that, whilst each symphony offers its own thrills, Tchaikovsky saved his very best for last, although the biographical myths and mysteries that have become associated with it can make this symphony a tricky one to untangle. First off, the subtitle Pathétique is actually a bit misleading; rather than evoking fragility or pity the original Russian word pateticheskaya is actually more accurately translated as ‘passionate’ or ‘emotional’. It also doesn’t help that Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth in St Petersburg just nine days before his sudden death, officially from cholera, although many have questioned the strange circumstances of his passing, so various theories of suicide or even a sinister murder conspiracy have circled ever since. As a result the work quickly came to be viewed as a kind of self-penned requiem or musical suicide note, although there is scant evidence that Tchaikovsky had any idea of his approaching death. However, listening to the Symphony it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it must be ‘about’ death; having made ‘fate’ a pervasive, ominous presence that’s dodged by triumphant finales in his last two symphonies, here Tchaikovsky’s music seems to finally face the threat head-on. The Pathétique does still feature music that sounds just like a proper finale, except that this happens in the penultimate movement, and the music that brings Tchaikovsky’s final symphony to a close is instead a desolate, achingly sad lament.

What to listen out for: The slow descent into total darkness that ends the final movement really is gut-wrenching, but there’s plenty of warmth to be found here too, especially in the bittersweet second movement, a graceful ‘limping’ waltz (in 5/4 time) of such beauty and melodic directness that the tune will follow you around all day.

You can stream our Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle with Vladimir Jurowski on Apple Music and Spotify. Happy listening!