Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, op. 36

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

          Tchaikovsky completed six symphonies, of which the last three are concert staples.  The fourth is a product of a particularly tumultuous time in his life, centering around his relationship with two women.   They are the wife of his short, disastrous marriage, and his patroness—whom he never personally met.   He began composition of the symphony in 1877, shortly after he had been “adopted” by Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of an engineer.  Von Meck had begun generous financial support of Tchaikovsky, and perhaps, more importantly, had entered into a long, personal relationship via correspondence that lasted more than a decade.   They exchanged at least two letters a week in a relationship that probed philosophic and artistic matters.  While remote and superficially formal, this affiliation obviously served deep emotional needs of Tchaikovsky.  They may have encountered each other on the street, but never spoke face to face.  He agreed in the summer of 1877 to dedicate the symphony to her, his “best friend.”

          At this point, his life took a turn that most now agree can only be characterized as bizarre, if not perverse.  In short—the facts still provoke controversial interpretations—he abruptly married Antonina Milyukova, a women he hardly knew, proposing marriage only a few days after having met her.   Tchaikovsky’s diffidence was well articulated in a letter to von Meck:   “ [I have] lived thirty-seven years with an innate aversion to marriage . . . in a day or two my marriage will take place . . . . What will happen after that I do not know.”  Work on the symphony stopped, understandably, while this precipitous relationship rocketed to its dénouement.   The loveless marriage was doomed from the beginning, complicated by Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality—the attendant psychological motivations will never completely be understood.   The next couple of months were hell, he tried to commit suicide by wading up to his waist in the Moscow river, hoping for pneumonia; ultimately he fled the country.   Distance from Antonina obviously worked its charms, for he finished the symphony by January of 1878.   He dedicated the work to von Meck, and a well-known letter to her tells us much about what the composition meant to him.

          While Tchaikovsky was averse—like most of the musical intelligentsia—to imbuing a symphony with extra-musical “stories” and meaning, after the composition’s completion he complied with a request of hers to tell her what the work was about.   He wrote at length, somewhat emotionally and with no small hyperbole, but the gist of his response is instructive.   Fate is the subject and focus of this symphony:

"The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea.   This is fate, that fatal force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace  and happiness shall not be complete and  unclouded, which hangs over your head like the sword of Damocles, and unwaveringly, constantly poisons the soul."

          Thus, the first movement opens with a powerful unison from the horn section followed by the rest of the brass announcing the “fate” motive; it returns at each division of this sonata form to remind us.   The first theme is in the string section, cast in a waltz rhythm; Tchaikovsky’s ballets are eloquent testimony to his mastery of that dance.   The second main theme is announced by the solo clarinet, offering some hope, but is dashed by the recurring motive of fate. The movement ends in emotional depths.   The second movement is a lyrical reminiscent that Tchaikovsky called “ . . . feeling that enwraps one when he sits alone at night in the house exhausted by work . . .  It is sad, yet sweet to lose one’s self in the past.”   The scherzo that follows is a testament to the composer’s reputation for skill in orchestration.   The strings play pizzicato all the way through, opening the movement by themselves.  The middle section begins with woodwinds alone, playing a kind of little village band tune.  The brass, staccato, follow with their contribution, with the movement ending somewhat as it began, again with pizzicato strings.   The famous finale begins with a raucous, virtuoso rip followed by the main theme, a Russian folksong called “In the Field a Little Birch Tree Stood.”   The words to the song allude to marriage, women, solitary existence, and the divergent fates of those who marry—or do not.   The fate motive from the first movement intrudes upon the festivities yet one more time, but is swept away by the exuberance of the coda.   Tchaikovsky’s words inform:  “Rejoice in the happiness of others—and you can still live.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan