Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Symphony No. 4
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
speaking, the remaining movements feel like illustrative postludes of disarming
Andantino in modo di canzone “How 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.” -
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.
Scherzo - Pizzicato ostinato, allegro “Suddenly 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
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
Finale - Allegro con fuoco “Go 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
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,
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