Tchaikovsky's Greatest Symphonies


There's an old joke that says Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies –  Numbers 4, 5 and 6. Sadly, there's some truth to that, since those last three are most frequently heard in concert halls around the world, while the first three remain (undeservedly) neglected. That said, Tchaikovsky's final trio of symphonies are among the greatest orchestral works ever composed. Their fascinating stories and gorgeous music will be explored in an Active Minds program recalling the triumphs and tragedy of this extraordinary composer.


In the last half of the 19th Century, Russian music came alive, after being all but non-existent during the previous centuries. Though Western European music was still the biggest influence, native-born composers began to create a “Russian sound,” using popular songs, church hymns and stories of legendary figures in the country's rich folklore. Some composers stayed away from the newly built conservatories in St. Petersburg and Moscow, preferring to avoid any contact with the Western approach taught in those schools. Those self-taught individuals helped create a new excitement for music by Russians for Russians. Among them were Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Choosing to follow the European approach was Peter Tchaikovsky, studying at those conservatories, yet who nonetheless dipped into the folklore of his homeland. Since the symphony was the ultimate voice for European composers, Tchaikovsky felt compelled to follow suit. His first offering showed an abundance of youthful promise in a richly melodic piece subtitled “Winter Dreams.” Next came nationalistic works: the “Little Russian” Symphony (its title a popular nickname for the Ukraine) and the “Polish” Symphony. As splendid as these three are, there is no comparison with the magnificent trio of Symphonies that followed. The Fourth emerged after Tchaikovsky had begun a lengthy long-distance financial relationship with a wealthy woman named Nadezhda von Meck, who sent the composer checks – along with a demand that the two never meet (they never did). Sending her a copy of the Fourth, the composer wrote to von Meck that “this is our symphony.” The work opens with a powerful Fate motif, sounded ominously in the brass, returning later in the work to suggest that there's no escape from the inevitable. The Fifth Symphony also presents a repeated theme, one that reappears in each of the four movements. Like its predecessor, the Fifth always draws instant standing ovations in concert. Not so the final work, the “Pathetique” Symphony. Number Six carries an inescapable mood of resignation and utter sadness (though its Third Movement is a confident, exhilarating march). Its ending is quiet and deeply tragic – leaving audiences in stunned silence, as it somehow predicts the composer's mysterious death that occurred only weeks after the Symphony premiered. Together, the last three Symphonies of Tchaikovsky serve as pinnacles of the orchestral repertoire, and as the greatest examples of the late 19th-Century Russian revival.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some of the folk melodies used in Tchaikovsky's six Symphonies?
  • What are the circumstances surrounding the composer's mysterious death?
  • What other composer was linked to Nadezhda von Meck? (hint: he's French)
  • Who was Antonina Milyukova and why did she drive Tchaikovsky nuts?

Reflective Questions

  • How does the final movement of the “Pathetique” make you feel?
  • If you had to choose only one Tchaikovsky Symphony, which would it be?
  • Should the composer's personal life be given all the attention it's received?

More to Explore

  • Kennedy Center site with biography and videos Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Sadie, S. and Tyrrell, J., editors. The New Grove Tchaikovsky. Palgrave MacMillan, 2000, 264 pages. Drawn from the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this fine examination of the composer's life and music includes a complete listing of his works.
    Click here to order
  • Floros, Constantin. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: A Critical Biography. Peter Lang, publisher. 2018. 170 pages. For the serious student of the composer, here is a deeply researched book giving a Russian's slant to the story.
    Click here to order