Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, and triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 5, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Tchaikovsky’s work on his Fourth Symphony coincided with two relationships: with his wife in a short-lived and disastrous marriage and with his patroness Nadehzda von Meck in a long-term and productive association that, although they never actually met, went beyond the financial to an emotional outlet for both. To her he penned a detailed description of the Symphony, and it offers a valuable guide through the music.
“The introduction is the seed of the whole Symphony: This is fate: that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded.” The “fate” theme is introduced right away as a fanfare first on horns and bassoons, then amplified by other winds. As the movement unfolds, a rhythmic theme gives way to a more plaintive mood, and is interrupted by the fanfare again: in Tchaikovsky’s description: “No! These were merely daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them.”
In the second movement, outward sections flank a bright woodwind tune. Solo oboe leads us through “a whole procession of memories… it is at once sad and somehow sweet to lose ourselves in the past.” The Scherzo illustrates Tchaikovsky’s gift for tonal effects, including pizzicato strings and unusual woodwind groupings. He said there were no “definite feelings” but rather “capricious arabesques” and “elusive images.” “I never compose in the abstract, i.e. a musical idea never appears without its appropriate external form…. When I was writing the Scherzo of our Symphony, I imagined it exactly as you heard it. It is unthinkable played any other way than pizzicato.” Virtuosic passages at the extreme low end of the orchestra – the double basses – and the high – the piccolo’s flight of fancy – emphasize the sense of caprice and play.
In the Finale, Tchaikovsky drew on his Russian roots to produce the impression of a folk celebration; his message is to take joy in others’ joy: “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings.” He told Meck that the Russian element emerged “of its own accord,” no doubt stimulated by his homesickness while living in Italy. At the same time, the individual is lost in the crowd, and the “fate” motive intervenes before yielding to the collective celebration: “Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others than irrepressible fate again appears and reminds you of yourself.” Certainly by the dramatic last chords no listener fails to grasp the central expressive impulse – nor can doubt the composer’s contention that his works “have all been felt and lived by me, and have come straight from my heart.”
Susan Key is a musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.