The first performances of the new work in November and December of 1888 in St. Petersburg did little to alleviate Tchaikovsky's doubts, as he made clear in letters to his benefactor Nadezhda von Meck:
My new symphony was played twice in Saint Petersburg... 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 realisation 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.The work was well received in Russia despite Tchaikovsky's reservations, and a performance in Hamburg in 1889 caused the composer to change his opinion of the work. The first performances in the United States did not fare as well. The New York performance of 1889 was very negative, but the review of the Boston performance of 1892 as written in one of the local newspapers was particularly harsh:
The general style of the orchestration is essentially modern, and even ultra-modern... is less untamed in spirit than the composer’s B-flat minor Concerto, less recklessly harsh in its polyphonic writing, less indicative of the composer’s disposition to swear a theme’s way through a stone wall. . . . In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian Steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!The 5th Symphony has been compared to Beethoven's 5th in the sense that within both works there is a sense of overcoming adversity, and that very broad comparison is valid. It is the manner in which these two very different composers go about it that make both works masterpieces. The symphony is in four movements:
I. Andante - Allegro con anima - The theme, or fate theme that appears in all four movements is played straight away by the clarinets with a sparse accompaniment from the strings:
II. Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza - The second movement is in B minor, with the first theme modulating to D major as played by a solo horn. An oboe joins in before the theme continues in the strings with comments by the woodwinds. This theme is brought to a climax before the clarinet introduced another theme. This theme develops and builds until it is brutally interrupted by the fate theme. After a short silence, the orchestra recovers from the intrusion and continues with the first theme that opened the movement. The music builds to another climax on the first theme and as it is winding down the fate theme once again rudely interrupts. The first theme returns in a subdued mood and gradually passes into silence.
III. Valse. Allegro moderato - Tchaikovsky exchanges the usual scherzo movement for a waltz, at least in name and initial feeling, but the middle section resembles a scherzo by its busy nature and rhythmic play. The waltz and trio is played with the trio as an accompaniment before the waltz returns in full. Just as the waltz is winding down, the fate theme returns for a short interruption before the waltz ends with loud chords.
IV. Finale. Andante maestoso–Allegro vivace - The fate theme as played in the strings begins the finale and builds to a climax and after a short transition the first theme proper thunders from the orchestra in full voice and fury. A second theme is introduced by the oboe, and a third by the flutes. The fate theme reappears in regal form as an episode that begins the development section. A new theme briefly appears, and the recapitulation begins. The fate theme reappears briefly and the orchestra plays majestic chords in B major, followed by a fermata rest, which gives the impression to the ear that the symphony has reached its end. This has caused more than one audience to erupt in applause, but it is but the end of the recapitulation. A coda begins in the key of E major with the most majestic version of the fate theme yet played. The forlorn, funereal theme has been transformed to one of molto maestoso. Other snippets of themes are played until the fate theme returns one last time to finish the symphony.