Tchaikovsky wrote his Fifth Symphony in the summer of 1888 when he had just turned 48, and worked on it simultaneously with his fantasy overture Hamlet. The first performance - an eagerly awaited event in musical circles - took place in St Petersburg, then the Russian capital, with Tchaikovsky conducting.
As so often before, while working on the symphony Tchaikovsky was plagued by self-doubt, often convinced that his creative powers were deserting him. Things were slow to start, and although the inspiration soon began to gather momentum, before starting work on the instrumentation Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron Mme von Meck that there was "none of the former lightness and constant readiness of material" in the work. However, in time his opinion of the symphony began to improve and he came to love it, and was especially delighted to receive Brahms's approval upon hearing it.
Although Tchaikovsky didn't assign a programme to the Fifth Symphony, as he had done with the Fourth, there exists a fragment from a notebook in which he sets out his thoughts on the first movement, thereby giving us an insight into what his intentions may have been for the work as a whole:
Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, lamentations, reproaches against XXX. (II) Shall I throw myself into the embraces of Faith?
This struggle with Fate is also expressed in his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, and in the Fifth, although Tchaikovsky never says as much in words, the Finale is a clear representation of the triumph over Fate, as the opening theme finally reappears transformed into the major key and at a faster tempo.
As with his Fourth Symphony a unifying theme pervades the work, appearing in some way in all of its four movements.
The first movement is an Allegro whose introduction states the unifying motif, and which signifies the resignation to Fate he had written about. It's followed by a deeply felt and tragic Andante in the major key of D, before Tchaikovsky produces a waltz, straight out of the world of the ballet, for the third movement. The Finale is a lively Allegro which represents the triumph over Fate in its final march now in the major key.