A Bad Case of Writer’s Block: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

Even the legendary Russian Romantic composer struggled with writer’s block, self-doubt, and the occasional lack of inspiration.

By California Symphony

I am written out, my head is empty, my time is past…”—Tchaikovsky

While composing his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky consistently doubted his ability to write. He began working on the piece in the spring of 1888 and thanks to correspondence from that time with his patron Nadezhda von Meck and others, we can see the extent of the composer’s persistent and recurring struggle with his craft. Here, in his own words, is commentary extracted from letters written at the time.

May 1888:

“I’ve still not yet made a start, because I’ve been working on various proofs. But I can honestly say that the urge to create has deserted me. What does this mean? Am I really written out? I’ve no ideas or inspiration whatsoever! But I hope little by little to gather materials for the symphony.”

“I am working quite assiduously on a symphony, which, if I am not mistaken, will be no worse than its predecessors. But perhaps this is just my opinion now… I may later feel that I am written out, that my head is empty, that my time is past, etc.”

June 1888:

An 1883 letter bearing Tchaikovsky’s monogram.

“I must work harder in the future; I want so much to show not only to others, but to myself, that I still haven’t expired… I don’t know whether I wrote to you that I had decided to write a symphony. At first it was fairly difficult; now inspiration seems to have deserted me completely.”

July 1888:

“What was previously easy and straightforward has not remained so.”

“My work is now progressing terribly slowly. Time flies, old age draws near, and each moment is precious to me; but in the meantime, despite my efforts, I cannot concentrate on work. However I hope that by the end of the summer to have finished both my symphonic works.”

By August 1888, things seemed to be improving:

He wrote to Nadezhda von Meck:

“I am now working very successfully, and the greater portion of the symphony is already scored.”

“Now, as the symphony nears its end, I can view it objectively, and at the culmination of the work I must say that, thank God, it is no worse than my previous ones. This accomplishment means a great deal to me!”

The Fifth Symphony was well received by Tchaikovsky’s friends in Moscow. In September 1888, the composer wrote:

“The symphony has received unanimous approval from all my friends: some even say that it’s my best work.”

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia on Nov. 17, 1888.

Tchaikovsky’s joy and relief didn’t last long.

“My new symphony was played twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague. I am convinced that this symphony is not a success. There is something so repellent about such excess, insincerity and artificiality.”

“With each day that passes I am increasingly certain that my last symphony is not a successful work, and the realization that it is unsuccessful (or perhaps that my powers are declining) is very distressing to me. The symphony is too colorful, massive, insincere, drawn out and on the whole very unsympathetic… Am I indeed, as they say, written out?… If so, then this is terrible. Whether my misgivings are mistaken or not, regrettably I have concluded that the symphony written in 1888 is poorer than the one written in 1877”

By March the following year, after a performance of the work in Hamburg, his mood had lifted again.

“The musicians took to the music more and more each time the symphony was played. At rehearsals there was general enthusiasm, flourishes, etc. The concert also went excellently. As a result, I no longer have a bad opinion of the symphony, and like it once more.”

“The Fifth Symphony was again performed magnificently, and I have started to love it again; my earlier judgement was undeservedly harsh…”

Originally published February 20, 2020. Updated August 3, 2021.

The California Symphony’s EPIC FINALE featuring cellist Nathan Chan and California Symphony Young Composer in Residence, Viet Cuong takes place Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 PM and Sunday, May 15 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Tickets are $44 to $74. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm.


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