One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Symphony No. 4

I reckon there’s one way that Tchaikovsky would have made a good Yorkshireman - he doesn’t mince his musical words. Like Rachmaninov and Arnold, he speaks directly and emotively to us. The Fourth Symphony especially is crammed with belting good tunes, toe-tapping rhythms, vivid poster-paint orchestration - and packs a punch fit to fell an ox. 

Tchaikovsky regarded it as an “imitation of the basic idea of Beethoven's Fifth”, and indeed both are “about Fate”. However, whereas Beethoven the bold, fearless musical pioneer “takes Fate by the throat”, for Tchaikovsky it’s the other way around. Why? Because he was insecure, fatalistic, neurotic, introverted? Perhaps so, judging by what apparently went on just as he started work on the symphony. The story goes that in 1877 he married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, admirer, moral blackmailer, and raving nymphomaniac. What made this respectable musician susceptible to blackmail? His closet homosexuality, with the inevitable result: a dis-union made in hell. Within nine weeks the nervously wrecked Tchaikovsky fled. 

That’s the textbook tale. Recent research uncovers a more complex web of intrigues, involving his brother Modeste, misdemeanours, money, morals and misjudgements. Above all, Tchaikovsky’s breakdown was really due to his conviction that marriage would stifle his muse. The one constant in this whole sorry mess was that disastrous outcome. 

It’s now thought that Antonina was equally a victim, her vilification being the by-product of a family whitewash, willy-nilly creating a soap-opera style contrast to the “fairy godmother” hovering in the wings. The unconditional bankroll of another admirer, the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, restored Tchaikovsky’s marbles. Immediately, he completed the Fourth Symphony (1877/8), dedicating it to his comfortably remote “best friend”. Its “programme”, outlined below, wasn’t intended for public consumption, but to explain the music’s genesis to his mysterious benefactor. 

The music’s palpable struggle and strife betoken another of Tchaikovsky’s problems. His musical culture was short-winded - based on repetition of short cells. The art of binding these into cohesive arguments didn’t come naturally. Although “number based” forms, the opera and ballet at which he excelled, were unaffected he nevertheless fretted constantly about “having to end my days without having written anything perfect in form”. For a big Mozart fan this was utterly understandable. 

In the Fourth, he tackled this supposed shortcoming by using his programme as a philosophical “skeleton” - bones to frame the musical meat - reinforced by “closing” the structure, resurrecting the first movement's “fate” motif near the end. Yet, isn’t his “problem” really his insecurity? By anybody’s standards, this work is brilliantly bolted together and, turning that supposed weakness to advantage, even harnesses the dynamic power of “repetitive short cells” - to utterly mesmerising effect! 

1. Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima - Moderato assai, quasi andante - Allegro vivo.Destiny, that fateful force which impedes the impulse toward fulfilment, which jealously ensures that prosperity and peace are never complete and cloudless, which hangs overhead like a sword of Damocles. It is invincible and you will never vanquish it. All that we can do is subject ourselves and vainly lament.” - Tchaikovsky 

That elaborate marking says more about the extreme emotional tension than the masterful sonata-form generating much of its impact. The prefatory “Fate” motif is no mere gesture, signposting the ends of exposition, recapitulation, and development. Through the subsequent woodwind link it emerges as originator of the first subject proper which, by twists and turns yearning and truculent, spawns a rhythmic cell that energises its climax. The second subject, a pretty confection of winsomely intertwined tune-lets, eventually tiptoes on tympani feet. Subject One is drawn into this dance, and seduced into exposing its rhythmic cell. Subject Two turns up the heat, inflaming the cell. At the climax, Subject Two rises dominantly on rampant horns, usurping Subject One’s proprietry rights to the cell! Coming amid the first “relaxed” passage, this is a brilliantly effective dramatic - and symphonic - master-stroke. There’s another plot twist: the cell, now the main subjects’ common progeny (though hardly a “Siegfried”!), pervades the development and leads the culminating, colossal confrontation with “Fate”. This stupendous conflict disgorges Subject One, defeated and depleted, while Subject Two’s machinations get a full reprise. Ironically, Subject One’s linking with “Fate” effectively sets “allies” at each other’s throats, while the real culprit gets off scot-free. 

Relatively speaking, the remaining movements feel like illustrative postludes of disarming formal simplicity: 

2. Andantino in modo di canzoneHow sad to think that so much has been, so much is gone! We regret the past, yet we have neither the courage nor the desire to begin life afresh. We are weary of existence.” - Tchaikovsky 

Tchaikovsky was ever a prolific song-writer. Take some decorative variations on the verse of the titular “canzone”, linked by the refrain, all neatly enfolding tauter variations on another theme, add a lingering coda, and Bob’s your uncle Well, maybe not quite. If Tchaikovsky’s verse appositely drips fireside nostalgia, then his refrain impels us to pace the room - in vain. The refrain’s second surge finds release in the outgoing central theme, whose variations rapidly accumulate climactic joyfulness - which melts away dismayingly, leaving us slumping into the fireside chair. The resuming ruminations are soon troubled by variegated woodwind runs, surely an uncomfortable memory of the first movement’s “seduction”. The music drifts into dreaming. From Russian “gloom”, the verse emerges on bassoon, but there’s no answering refrain, only pangs of regret. 

3. Scherzo - Pizzicato ostinato, allegroSuddenly arises the memory of a drunken peasant and a ribald song, and military music in the distance. Such disconnected images flit through the brain as one sinks into a tipsy slumber. They have nothing to do with reality; they are incomprehensible, bizarre and fragmentary” - Tchaikovsky 

With impeccable timing, Tchaikovsky lightens things up (including the string players’ right arms). His robust scherzo sometimes sounds like a “trailer” for the Nutcracker, but always displays dazzling deftness straight from Mendelssohn’s top drawer. The scherzo scampers, pattering on pizzicato strings. The trio interrupts, wily woodwind trying to emulate their rosiny room-mates. Equally emulatory bumping brass contribute the counter-subject, but instead of returning (as expected) to the woodwind tune, the two become cunningly counterposed. After the scherzo repeat (now unexpectedly as expected), the coda commences with woodwind joining the strings’ game, then slips nonchalantly into the woodwind’s tune. Finally, as everybody pecks at the brass’ idea, the movement evaporates! 

4. Finale - Allegro con fuocoGo among the people. See how they understand how to be happy. But no sooner have you forgotten yourself in contemplation of the joys of others than Fate returns to remind you . . .” - Tchaikovsky 

“Slumbers” are shattered by the rudest of “wake-up” calls, thrusting forward a simple, folk-based tune (presumably representing “the people”!). That call rapidly rounds off this brief “exposition”, answered with rip-roaring vigour (I’m not sure about Tchaikovsky’s idea of a ‘folk festival’ - two minutes of this and I”d be jiggered). This movement also is variational: two groups, each of five variations, separated by that whirlwind “call and answer”. Try disentangling yourself from the hyperactive holiday-making: the broader perspective is equally breathtaking, the variations as exhaustive as the energy is exhausting. “Fate” pre-empts the expected second “call and answer”, a stunning coup de theatre that seems to numb our senses: gradually, as the red mist clears, the “answer” is in “coda” mode. While we were “out”, the party carried on regardless! Resistance is futile - we are swept into the seething crowds to revel in perhaps the most electrifying of codas. “Catharsis” hardly even begins to describe it.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


Conditions for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.

Return to: Music on the Web