Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

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Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 Program Notes

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 Program Notes. The year 1877 was one of terrible challenge for Tchaikovsky. An unmarried, 37-year-old professor in his eleventh year at the Moscow Conservatory. It’s clear from even a cursory reading of his published diaries, that he accepted his homosexuality, but he agred to marry Antonina Milyukova, a former Conservatory student of his, who pursued him. They were separated after only a few weeks together They never divorced, even though her affairs with other men could have allowed him to annul their marriage, and she probably could have sued, too. She outlived him by 24 years, though spent the last twenty years of her life (until the Revolutionary 1917) in asylums.

At the same time, 1877 was a year of great providence. Prior to the marriage, he had been contacted by Nadezhda von Meck, a Russian noblewoman who described herself as a “fervent admirer.” (She was unfeasibly wealthy, owning some of Russia’s most important railways. She had pushed her late husband, engineer Karl Otto Georg von Meck, to build them). Over the thirteen years of their curious relationship (they never spoke, writing over 1,200 letters instead), she provided Tchaikovsky with generous gifts, allowing him to quit academia in favor of composing and performing.

This symphony was the first major work in their relationship, and he dedicated it “to my Best Friend.” She asked him to provide a program. Of the opening brass fanfare, Tchaikovsky wrote: “This is Fate, the power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealousy provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds – a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head, that poisons continually the soul. This might is overpowering and invincible. There is nothing to do but submit and vainly to complain.” After the introduction, most of the movement is a feverish kind of waltz.

“The second movement shows another phase of sadness. Here is that melancholy feeling that enwraps one when he sits alone at night in the house exhausted by work; a swarm of reminiscences arises. It is sad, yet sweet, to lose one’s self in the past.
“[In the third movement], here are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated.”

Following the loud festivity of the fourth movement’s opening, Tchaikovsky introduces and repeats a Russian folk song, “Beriozka” or The Birch Tree. The original words call for the use of branches from the tree in making musical instruments – “when I play my new balalaika, I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.”

This melancholy tune builds into a final, fff reckoning of the Symphony’s opening Fate motive, before giving way to a cheerful coda. Tchaikovsky wrote: “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity. There still is happiness, simple, naive happiness. Rejoice in the happiness of others – and you can still live.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Categories: Program Notes