Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in F-Minor, Op. 36

by Max Derrickson

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky     (Born, 1840 in Kamko-Votinsk,Russia; Died, 1893 in St.Petersburg)

Symphony No. 4 in F-Minor, Op. 36
1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima
2. Andantino en modo di canzona
3. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro
4. Finale: Allegro con fuoco

When the first notes sound at the start of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, there is nothing that can quite prepare you for it.  More of a call to Judgment than a fanfare, the brash, cold and powerful chords blast forth from a very tragic and frightening place in Tchaikovsky’s soul, and their apocalyptic echoes reverberate throughout the rest of Symphony.  “This is Fate,” he told his patroness in 1878 as he was putting the finishing touches on the work, “…which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul.  An invincible force that can never be overcome – merely endured, miserably.”  And yet, despite the composer’s warnings, this is the beginning of one of the most beloved symphonies in Western music.

Tchaikovsky’s fatalistic proclamation reveals much about his frame of mind when he was composing this masterpiece between 1877-1878, which was probably the most turbulent and extraordinary year of his life.  For several unfortunate reasons, Tchaikovsky married a woman whom he barely knew.  Antonina Miliukhova, a former student of his from the Moscow Conservatory,
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Amazingly however, in the aftermath of this personal disaster, he penned three of his greatest works: the Violin Concerto, his opera Eugene Onegin, and the Symphony No. 4.

But no study of Tchaikovsky’s life, or his Symphony No. 4, is complete without mentioning his patroness as well, Nadezhda von Meck, whom also entered his life in that fateful year of 1877.  It was von Meck, like Antonina, who sought Tchaikovsky out.  She was a rich widower and devoted to art and literature.  She has been described, in her patronage days, as a “collector of people.”  She patronized many an artist, including Claude Debussy between 1880-82.  She was deeply moved with Tchaikovsky’s works but her odd bargain with him was thus: 500 rubles deposited in his account each month, but they could never meet in person.  He accepted her proposal, and what ensued was a 13 year relationship through correspondence
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To this end, Tchaikovsky often referred to the Symphony in his letters to von Meck as “our symphony.”   He dedicated this masterpiece to her with the words “…to my best friend.”

Tchaikovsky’s description of the opening fanfare as being Fate comes from a letter to von Meck explaining his creative inspirations while writing “their” symphony.  He went on to describe the other themes that followed in the rest of the Symphony as essentially a battle against Fate – in movement two, the sad but sweet reminiscences of a wearisome life;
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but ever evasive and multi-faceted, Tchaikovsky denied that he ever intended it to be programmatic:  “You asked me whether there is a definite programme to this symphony?”  Tchaikovsky wrote, “…none whatsoever” was his reply.  Whatever his ambivalence about interpreting the piece discreetly, a program doesn’t matter, because ultimately, as Tchaikovsky said, quoting the German poet Heine, “Where words end, music begins.”

As for that music, so many extraordinary moments in Western music happen here.  Along with the memorably powerful opening fanfare, two more themes appear in the first movement that are gems.  First is the syncopated, restless tune in the strings that builds up to such cataclysmic force, followed by a theme played by the winds that has the lovely rhythm of a child skipping.  The second movement holds forth with one of the great oboe solos in the repertoire –
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The finale comes flying at the listener like a tidal wave of sound and might – fast and manic; it’s a virtuosic showpiece for orchestra.  With exceptional skill, Tchaikovsky uses an old Russian folktune, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” as the main theme.  A momentary reminder of the “Fate” motive from the beginning reappears which then launches one of the most exciting finishes in all of music.