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Length: c. 44 minutes

About this Piece

“An artist lives a double life: an everyday human life and an artistic life, and the two do not always go hand in hand.” So wrote Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose often uneasy balances are well known: between a profoundly Russian spirit and European training, between heartfelt romanticism and reverence for Mozart’s classicism, and, most painfully, between homosexuality and society’s intolerance. His Fourth Symphony is the first full expression of his artistic voice and represents a turning point on multiple levels: as a composer, toward mastery of technique; as a human, toward confronting his demons; as an artist, toward a more cosmopolitan idiom. He wrote much of the work in Italy, and a sense of warm lyricism balances the work’s dramatic and fantastic elements. “My Symphony is definitely the best work I have written so far,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest in the fall of 1877, “but it needed some hard work to compose it; especially the first part.” 

Tchaikovsky’s work on the symphony coincided with two relationships: with his wife in a short-lived and disastrous marriage and with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in a long-term and productive association that, although the two never actually met, went beyond the financial to an emotional outlet for both. To her he penned a detailed description of the symphony, and it offers a valuable guide through the music. Still, this is a classic example of a description that is at once candid and elusive, as it often stays on a level of suggestion rather than narrative. “The introduction is the seed of the whole Symphony: This is fate: that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded.” The “fate” theme is introduced right away as a fanfare, first on horns and bassoons, then amplified by other winds. As the movement unfolds, a rhythmic theme gives way to a more plaintive mood and is interrupted by the fanfare again: in Tchaikovsky’s description: “No! These were merely daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them.” 

In the second movement, outward sections flank a bright woodwind tune. Solo oboe leads us through “a whole procession of memories… it is at once sad and somehow sweet to lose ourselves in the past.” The Scherzo illustrates Tchaikovsky’s gift for tonal effects, including pizzicato strings and unusual woodwind groupings. He said there were no “definite feelings” but rather “capricious arabesques” and “elusive images.” “I never compose in the abstract, i.e., a musical idea never appears without its appropriate external form…. When I was writing the Scherzo of our Symphony, I imagined it exactly as you heard it. It is unthinkable played any other way than pizzicato.” 

In the Finale, Tchaikovsky drew on his Russian roots to produce the impression of a folk celebration; his message is to take joy in others’ joy: “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings.” He told Meck that the Russian element emerged “of its own accord,” no doubt stimulated by his homesickness while living in Italy. At the same time, the individual is lost in the crowd, and the “fate” motive intervenes before yielding to the collective celebration: “No sooner have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others than irrepressible fate again appears and reminds you of yourself.” Certainly, by the dramatic last chords, no listener fails to grasp the central expressive impulse—nor can doubt the composer’s contention that his works “have all been felt and lived by me, and have come straight from my heart.” Susan Key