Symphony No. 4 in F Minor

Op. 36, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I adore terribly this child of mine; it is one of only a few works with which I have not experienced disappointment…this is my best symphonic work.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Between 1877–1878, while writing his Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote in his Diary: “There is no doubt that for some months I was insane, and only now, when I am completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man, who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on—that man wasn’t I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.” He did not mention that he had also tried to commit suicide and the stress of a divorce. Recovery was largely due to the loyal encouragement of his widowed patroness Mme Nadezda von Meck, who was instrumental in encouraging him to complete this work. She was the one bright spot in the terrible year of 1877.  He acknowledged her support by dedicating the Fourth Symphony to her, calling her only “my best friend” to insure her privacy, and noted, “I thought of you in every bar.”

He also thought about the role of Fate in life: “The introduction to the first movement is the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony.  This is Fate, the fatal power that hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealously provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds—a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head that poisons the soul.  There is nothing to do but to submit and vainly to complain.” The music begins with a fanfare theme from horns and bassoons, repeated by trumpets with a heavy motif, which recurs over and over again, circling like a vulture, dropping in throughout this movement and subsequent ones as well.  Two main themes occupy the first movement—an anxious first idea, and a waltz  (in 9/8 meter) for solo clarinet, followed by a tertiary idea, which is produced by strings and timpani as a counterpoint to the second idea. As the movement unfolds in general sonata-allegro format, the ending is clearly a victory for the Fate motif, which triumphs in the coda.

The second movement continues the melancholia and depression.  “Life has you tired out,” Tchaikovsky wrote.  “Many things flit through the memory…there were happy moments when young blood pulsed warm and life was gratifying.  There were also moments of grief and of irreparable loss.  It is all-remote in the past. It is both sad and somehow sweet to lose oneself in the past. And yet, we are weary of existence.”  An oboe reflects this sad perspective, singing a mournful tune accompanied by pizzicato strings. A second theme comes from the strings as a response; and he also adds a dance-like tune for momentary relief.  However this is short-lived, and his depression and anxiety return until Violins finally sing the opening oboe tune.

By the third movement, a “series of capricious arabesques”, the music gains a brighter perspective. This music, Tchaikovsky wrote, is that “heard after one has begun to drink a little wine, and is beginning to experience the first phase of intoxication.”  This condition Tchaikovsky knew well, surviving his grave-drinking problem later in life by means of hypnosis. Pizzicato strings generate the main theme and a trio section features a lively Russian dance, brass and piccolo provide marching music, oboes have a piquant duet. At all times there is lightness and almost incoherent gaiety.  Note that strings play pizzicato continually, keeping lightness and agility at the forefront.  “You are not thinking of anything,” the composer wrote. “The imagination is completely free and for some reason has begun to paint curious pictures…disconcerted images pass through our heads as we begin to fall asleep.”

By the fourth movement (marked allegro con fuoco) we find ourselves elevated to a euphoria.  The music becomes a virtuoso spree for orchestra, opening with a main subject for strings and winds.  Tchaikovsky was determined to be happy.  “If you cannot discover the reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others. Upbraid yourself and do not say that the entire world is sad…Take happiness from the joys of others.  Life is bearable after all,” he wrote.  In this movement we are treated to a musical quote from a charming Russian folksong titled In the Fields There Stands a Birch Tree displayed by oboe and bassoon, and continued exuberance in a majestic march.  The Fate motif intrudes toward the end, but an insistent frenzy intervenes, cymbal crashes ring out, as the symphony roars to its conclusion.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

See all Program Notes

Program Notes