We now reach the later period of Tchaikovsky’s career as a symphonist, which is where things go from “good”, “solid”, and “promising” to “great”. This is the Symphony No. 4 in F minor.
I have to confess that I didn’t always like this symphony all that much, but I have warmed substantially to it over the last few years. Tchaikovsky’s music is, in a lot of cases, best understood in the light of the events of his life at the time he was composing. This symphony, which has some of the most anguished passages I know, sprang from Tchaikovsky’s suicidal days after his ill-advised marriage and the beginning of the great relationship of his life, his patronage by the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck. This symphony begins with a passage he referred to as “Fate knocking at the door”, which is a phrase that has also been used to describe the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and indeed Tchaikovsky seems to have taken that earlier great work as a major inspiration:
Of course my symphony has a program, but of a kind impossible to formulate in words… Was it not the purpose of the symphony as a musical form to express that for which there are no words, but which surges from the soul and demands expression? Basically, my symphony is patterned after Beethoven’s Fifth. Not Beethoven’s musical ideas, but his fundamental notion… The Beethoven Fifth has a program. There can be no doubt what he wishes to express. The same idea underlies my own symphony, and if you have not understood me, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that I am not a Beethoven, which I myself have never doubted. I will add only that there is not a single line in my symphony which I have not felt deeply, and which does not echo true and sincere emotions.
He would dedicate this symphony to Madame von Meck, who prized it highly when he played it for her on the piano. Doubtless she was moved by the work’s feel of constant emotional struggle and turmoil, and was then brought to a state of intense excitement by the finale, which sounds in its closing passages as though the orchestra is going to levitate, so great is the energy being expended.
Here is Tchaikovksy’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. (Pay special attention to the conductor at the 12:00 mark. I’m always amazed this doesn’t happen more often!)
Next week, we’re still with Tchaikovsky but we take a break from his numbered Symphonies for one that’s titled.