Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1878)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
- Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima
- Andante in modo di canzona
- Scherzo, Pizzicato ostinato, Allegro
- Finale, Allegro con fuoco
Tchaikovsky is most famous for his ballets, his opera Eugene Onegin and his last three symphonies (4,5 and 6). He began work on his 4th symphony shortly after starting an unusual relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, conducted entirely by correspondence. She agreed to become Tchaikovsky’s patron on the condition that they never meet in person, an arrangement that suited Tchaikovsky perfectly, particularly given his suppressed sexual inclinations.
Whilst working on the first three movements, Tchaikovsky received several anguished letters from a former student, Antonina Milyukova, who was infatuated with him and threatened to kill herself if he did not reciprocate her feelings. Perhaps influenced by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and despite his misgivings, Tchaikovsky relented. Their disastrous marriage lasted less than three months.
Tchaikovsky found some solace by completing his fourth symphony whilst also working on Eugene Onegin. A musical exploration of fate, the symphony’s emotional intensity has scarcely been rivalled. Madam von Meck insisted on knowing what it was about, so Tchaikovsky provided a detailed program for her. However, he also wrote: “Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words. … In essence, my symphony is an imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth; I imitated not the musical ideas, but the fundamental concept.”
The horns and bassoons and then brass open with the powerful fate motif, soon followed by an enigmatic syncopated waltz-like theme in 9/8. “The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony. … This is Fate, that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from entirely achieving its goal. … One’s whole life is just a perpetual traffic between the grimness of reality and one’s fleeting dreams of happiness” wrote Tchaikovsky.
The gorgeous, yearning oboe theme that opens the slow movement and is taken up by the strings, speaks of times past. The subsequent fleeting woodwind passages capture the transience of good times, until the final repeat of the opening theme, unresolved as the solo bassoon subsides into nothingness, shows how illusory past memories can be.
Light relief is provided in the pizzicato scherzo with the central trio and coda conjuring up images of an almost comical country wind band.
The Finale blazes forth like a raging bushfire, providing glimpses of happier times, until interrupted by the inevitable fate motif. This time though, happiness triumphs!
Performed: Aug, Sep 2016