Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony

Program Notes

This weekend’s eclectic concerts feature the music of three centuries. Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages serves as an energetic curtain-raiser. Then Jennifer Koh plays the colorful Violin Concerto No. 2 of Polish master Karol Szymanowski. After intermission, we’ll hear Tchaikovsky’s momentous Symphony No. 5, an audience favorite for almost 130 years.

Mixed Messages

Nico Muhly
(Born 26 August 1981, Randolph, Vermont)

Composed: 2015

First performance: 13 May 2015; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, bongo drums, tenor drum, sleigh bells, guiro, brake drum, triangle, wood block, ratchet, kick drum, bass drum, tam tam), harp, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 11 minutes

At age 36, composer Nico Muhly’s eclectic catalog already lists over 80 works—ranging from opera to American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition to music for stage and screen. Muhly earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University, then trained at the Juilliard School, where he studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse. After completing his master’s degree there in 2004, he worked as an editor for Phillip Glass.

Mixed Messages was commissioned as a concert-opener for Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Muhly has stated that “mixed messages” is a term “you hear applied to any number of personal encounters, from the strictly business to the romantic.” In this brief composition, he seeks to articulate in music the disparate messages one can communicate simultaneously.

Following a frenetic brass salvo, the music moves forward in a moto perpetuo manner reminiscent of John Adams’s post-minimalist style. Muhly frequently changes focus, pitting the various sections of the orchestra against one another, but never losing the sense of forward motion. In these sorts of pieces, there’s often a lyrical middle section, and Mixed Messages adheres to that formula: short, pleading melodies in the cellos provide a pause in the action. The machine-like propulsion recommences, though, and the abrupt ending brings us up short, wondering if someone got the wrong message and hit the “power off” switch too soon.


Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61

Karol Szymanowski
(Born 6 October 1882, Tymoszówka, Ukraine; Died 29 March 1937, Lausanne, Switzerland)

Composed: 1932-33

First performance: 6 October 1933; Warsaw, Poland

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum), piano, strings

Approximate duration: 20 minutes

One would never regard Karol Szymanowski as a household name, even among seasoned concert-goers. Nevertheless, alongside Witold Lutoslawski (1913-94) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), he is reckoned one of Poland’s most important 20th century composers. The opera King Roger and choral/orchestral Stabat mater (both from 1926) are considered his masterpieces, but his output also includes four symphonies, vocal music, chamber music, solo piano works, a ballet, and two violin concertos.

Born the same year as Stravinsky, Szymanowski was influenced, at various stages, by the Russian’s master’s modernism, by Debussy’s impressionism, and by Scriabin’s mysticism. Folk elements are evident in his later large-scale works, including the one on today’s program, the Violin Concerto No. 2. Here, they serve as a “fertilizing agent”—to use the composer’s own words—subtly adapting the modes, rhythms, and musical gestures of their native material.

Szymanowski wrote his two violin concertos for his good friend Pawel Kochanski, who in many ways served as a co-creator. Both concertos are a seamless musical fabric made up of two large sections with a cadenza—composed by (and credited to) Kochanski—in between. In Op. 61, we can still hear the tone colors of Impressionism, but the folk element is brought to the fore, particularly in the second half of the piece.

In the concerto’s introductory bars, the soloist plays a long-spun melody, from which grows the first real theme, bright and cheerful. The music becomes increasingly energetic before melding into a slow, lyrical episode (Andante sostenuto). A scherzo-like passage and an increase in tension lead to the soloist’s cadenza, based on earlier secondary motifs. The following Allegramente section is a piquant dance, replete with the rich, modal character of folk music. It finds its way to a hauntingly expressive Andantino, after which the exuberant principal theme returns to end Szymanowski’s last major orchestral work.

Recommended recording: Frank Peter Zimmerman; Antoni Wit, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (Sony Classical)


Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
(Born 7 May 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia; Died 6 November 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Composed: 1888

First performance: 17 November 1888; St. Petersburg, Russia

Last MSO performance: October 2014; Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 50 minutes

In December 1887, Tchaikovsky set out on his first foreign tour as a conductor—leading concerts in Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin, and Prague—and meeting Brahms and Grieg along the way. After concerts in Paris and London, he returned to Russia in April 1888, where he began work on the fifth of his six symphonies. He completed his Op. 64 on 26 August, and it was given its first performance three months later, with Tchaikovsky conducting. The composer’s second piano concerto (1880) was on the same program.

The four movements of the Symphony No. 5 are cyclic, unified by a “motto theme” (or motif) that is first stated at the beginning of the work. Most commentators agree that this represents the idea of Fate, referred to by the composer in his early writings about the piece.

The symphony begins quietly and funereally, with the Fate motif played by the clarinets. For the main part of the first movement, the tempo is faster and the themes—taut and energetic, passionate and sighing—are built to a dynamic climax. This highly vigorous movement ends with a barely audible rumble from the low strings, bassoons, and tympani.

The Andante cantabile is vintage Tchaikovsky: well-crafted, colorfully orchestrated, with a languid horn melody that is one of the best-known in the symphonic repertoire. In the middle of the movement, the Fate motif interrupts noisily. In place of a scherzo, the third movement is a waltz; its trio, however, exhibits the playful character of a scherzo. The Fate theme is given a soft-pedal treatment by clarinets and bassoons near the end of the movement.

The finale begins with the Fate motif, this time transposed from E minor to E major. A vigorous sonata form movement unfolds. “If Beethoven’s fifth is Fate knocking at the door, Tchaikovsky’s fifth is Fate trying to get out,” wrote an early commentator. Indeed, the Fate motif marches forward in grand array: fortissimo, broad, majestic, in a major key. That’s not the end, however, for the music then dashes headlong into a presto, broadening again for the symphony’s triumphant final moments.

Recommended Recording: Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.