Lydia Catterall Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 Commentary

Before the symphony began playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the conductor explained two things to the audience. One, that the entire piece seemed to have a heartbeat-like rhythm to it, and two, that there was no predetermined story for the piece. We were encouraged to try to find a story based on our own perception. Thus, I began cataloguing what seemed to me like plot points in a narrative. Sequences of short, ascending notes gave the impression of rising action; loud, sharp bursts seemed to be climaxes; slow, light-sounding sections implied the happiness of resolved conflict. However, these various sensations within the song neither happened in order nor only once. The symphony was a whirlwind of fluctuating tones and paces, giving the listener a sensation of contentment and in the next second a sensation of nervousness. I began thinking that there was no possible way to derive a clear story from the music.

Ruling out the possibility of a narrative, however, allowed me to focus on the conductor’s other note: the underlying heartbeat. I had been so caught up in trying to figure the piece out that I had missed the near-constant pulse that existed in almost every sequence. The pulse made the symphony seem like a living thing, and I began to reconsider the piece not as a single narrative, but as a representation of a person’s life. The ups and downs happened in no predictable order, but even in the most chaotic moments, the heartbeat persisted. 

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