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Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36 (1877), 42 minutes

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840 and died in Saint Petersburg on November 6, 1893. Symphony No.4 was first performed on February 10, 1878 in Moscow conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein. The work is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings.

“You asked me whether there is a definite programme to this symphony? Usually when this question is put to me about a symphonic work my answer is: none! […] In our symphony there is a programme, i.e. it is possible to express in words what it is trying to say, and to you, and only to you, I am able and willing to explain the meaning both of the whole and of the separate movements.”


These are the words of Tchaikovsky, in a letter to Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, disclosing in programmatic detail, the inner workings of his new Symphony No. 4. A patron of the arts and friend of the conductor Nicolai Rubinstein, von Meck was obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s music and the composer began corresponding with the commercially wealthy window in 1876. Their relationship would be consigned to the pen and paper, as they were never to meet in person, but there is fire and intimacy in the composer’s words, going so far as calling the work, “our symphony” and “your symphony.” A litany of creative secrets would pass through these letters manifesting a deep relationship free of physicality. The work would bear the dedication “to my best friend.”


In May of 1877, at 36 years of age, Tchaikovsky began to receive and ignore strong love letters from a former student, Antonina Ivanova Milyukova, who threatened suicide if the composer refused to see her. In a sudden and bizarre turn of events, they were married speedily in July, and so begins a time of immense personal struggle that would see the composer torn, escaping to Saint Petersburg, increased health issues and a nervous breakdown, all providing the backdrop for the birth of his fateful symphony.

Writing to von Meck on August 24, “Our symphony progresses”. The composer would finally return to composing in the later half of 1877 detailing his progress: 

“The first movement will give me a great deal of trouble with respect to orchestration. It is very long and complicated: at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple, and it will be easy and pleasant to orchestrate them.” 

Von Meck would beg Tchaikovsky for the meaning of the music and the composer would respond:

“The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the central theme. This is Fate, i.e., that fateful force which prevents the impulse towards happiness from entirely achieving its goal, forever on jealous guard lest peace and well-being should ever be attained in complete and unclouded form, hanging above us like the Sword of Damocles, constantly and unremittingly poisoning the soul. Its force is invisible, and can never be overcome. Our only choice is to surrender to it, and to languish fruitlessly. . . .”

With a blast of horns and bassoons in A-flat octaves, the stark and singular wall of fanfare proclaims an unmovable fate to open the first movement marked Andante sostenuto. Like the opening of Verdi’s La forza del destino and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the power of melodic and rhythmic unison to embody a stone-cold destiny is unmistakable. Triplet rhythms provide some pitch resistance with stepwise changes orbiting above and below the A-flat, but with a force of gravity, it is nailed into sonic law, and a descent into harmonic madness unleashes the full brass section, woodwinds and strings to join in worship and supplication.


Fate will make several appearances near the end of the movement, and so the music that bridges these fate pillars starts with a kind of agitated waltz of life in 9/8 time whose rhythmic structure is contorted with syncopations and dotted values. There is anxiety in this melody to dance away into the abyss and to high-tail it out of fate-ville. Yet, it would seem there is some light in this world of dark with a fanciful clarinet melody that dances in reverie, and is surrounded with chromatic sparks, woodwind gestures cascading as fireflies, but it is fiction as Tchaikovsky writes:


 “The bleak and hopeless feelings grow stronger and intense. Is it not better to escape from reality and to immerse oneself in dream.”


The dream continues with swaying lines in the violins as Tchaikovsky so eloquently describes:


“Oh joy! Out of nowhere a sweet and gentle day-dream appears. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away.” How wonderful! How distant the obsessive first theme of the allegro now sounds! Gradually the soul is enveloped by daydreams. Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. Here it is, here it is — happiness!"


Though the dream is always going in and out of focus, synthesizing the tinged reminders of reality meshed with the day-dream rhythms of denial, and the contorted rhythms of the waltz of life, and so fate returns not once, but twice, a trinity that nails the composer’s fate to the cross of reality:


“No! These were daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them. And thus all life is an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness... No haven exists... Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths”


The sorrowful song of the oboe will continue a meditation on sadness in the second movement marked Andantino in modo di canzona, and the depression is infectious. Cellos, violins, bassoon with viola, all will partake in this melody, a communion of lost souls traversing a purgatory of bleakness. There is dark beauty in this land and remnants of fairy-like daydream music of woodwinds still linger but are quickly fleeting. There is vastness in the stoic chords that accompany the wanderers, reminders or fossils of the empty shells of their persons and spirit, lost memories:


“There come a whole host of memories. It is sad that so much is now in the past, albeit pleasant to recall one's youth. Both regretting the past, and yet not wishing to begin life over again. Life is wearisome. It is pleasant to rest and look around. Memories abound! Happy moments when the young blood boiled, and life was satisfying. There are also painful memories, irreconcilable losses. All this is now somewhere far distant. It is both sad, yet somehow sweet to be immersed in the past…”


The bubbling pizzicato of the third movement heralds the Scherzo, marked Allegro it is a pizzicato ostinato, the strings pluck for the entire movement. If the second movement delved deep into memories long past, the third is a dreamscape resurrecting village life or the sprightly movements of the ballet world. The quickness of the running pizzicato is welcome relief from the heaviness of the previous two movements and there is a charm to the cascading plucks and planks so carefully choreographed in the score, the music looks like a staircases of eighth notes. A folk-like dance in the winds and later a delicate tip-toeing march of the brass are introduced that exude the magic of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets. While Tchaikovsky had no detailed programmatic narrative for the third, his ability to synthesize in the large form is on full display as the latter half of the movement stitches together all three sections in a dream-like interplay:


“This is whimsical arabesques, vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication. The spirit is neither cheerful, nor sad. Thinking about nothing in particular, giving free rein to the imagination, which somehow begins to paint strange pictures... Amid these memories there suddenly comes a picture of drunken peasants and a street song... Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes. These are completely incoherent images which sweep through the head as one falls asleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are strange, wild, and incoherent..”


One final quiet tumble down the pizzicato stairs end the third movements, and then a volcanic eruption awakens the Allegro con fuoco of the finale. With a blast of harmony in the brass, the winds and strings whip into a frenzy, a whirlwind of 16th notes. This is a festival of music that is bursting at the seams. Tchaikovsky unleashes everything in his compositional arsenal, imitation, sequences, scales, modulations, fragmentation, call and response, it’s explosive, and when fate appears again, the composer seems to have learned to ignore the entity, to accept it, to live with it:


“If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible fate appears again and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves! How happy they are that all their feelings are simple and straightforward. Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Joy is a simple but powerful force. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.”



*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on May 21-23, 2021.

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