Classical Concert 1: Tchaikovsky's Fourth

Saturday, October 20, 2007 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4
Program Notes


SYMPHONY No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Composed: 1877-1878
Premiered: Moscow, Russia, 1878

  • Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo
  • Andantino in modo di canzona
  • Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato
  • Finale: Allegro con fuoco

Tchaikovsky’s music is nothing if not self-expressive – this was his main aim, after all. But what does it express? Movie fans may remember it as the background to Paul Newman’s murder by robot painters in What A Way To Go; some might agree with the New York Times critic who suggested that it should have been called A Sleighride Through Siberia after its American premiere. What lurks behind it is not much lesser bizarre: his extraordinary relationship with his patron, Nadezhda von Meck.

Unlike nearly every other Russian composer of his time, Tchaikovsky was a professional. He achieved this by having a patron who paid him a great deal of money to stay home and compose. Incredibly, the two never met, though they were once in the same large room. Appropriately enough, Nadezhda is the dedicatee of the Fourth Symphony.

Not particularly helpfully, Tchaikovsky wrote Madame von Meck a synopsis of the “story” behind the symphony. Put simply, it is all about that Beethovenian favorite, fate knocking at the door, which many have taken as a description of the opening movement’s first subject. Not so:

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, beyond question the main idea. This is Fate. One must submit to it and to futile yearnings. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and plunge into dreams? At last a sweet and tender vision appears. It is here, it is here, happiness! No! These were dreams, and Fate awakens us harshly. Thus, life is a perpetual alternation between grim reality and transient dreams and reveries of happiness.

The composer had just been divorced; we know what he means. The second movement is “another aspect of depression” – “one is sad because so much is gone, past, and it is pleasant to remember one’s youth.” The apparently amiable scherzo is in fact our hero (guess who) in a Berlioz-like drunken haze that renders him so insensible to the horror of life that he thinks a passing military band might cheer him up.

The Finale brings something resembling good news, or at least Romantic fortitude – “Life is still worth living,” we are told. This cheering thought is reached by a particularly Russian Nationalist route – “If you find no cause for joy within yourself, look for it in others. Go to the people.” The people are, of course, the toiling serfs of Mother Russia, in the shape of “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” a folksong – “When I play my new balalaika, I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.” This is not entirely apolitical. As always in Tchaikovsky, even happiness casts a shadow; the personal is the political is the universal. He did, after all, carry a hereditary noble title and knew the Tsar personally.

It is best to leave aside Tchaikovsky’s own psychological musings and the fleeting political shadows that flit around the Finale, and listen to what matters – the flow of idea into idea that came to replace (for some) the Sonata Form monolith. Tchaikovsky’s deeply Russian musical language is a poetry that speaks to a whole world.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Richard Strauss - Horn Concerto

About the Concert

Our anniversary season starts with this magnificent Bach concerto, the first work ever performed by the orchestra! Tchaikovsky explores the themes of fate and destiny in one of his most enduring symphonies in a program also featuring Maryland horn virtuoso Larry Williams.

Support the Columbia Orchestra

Help support Your Community's Music by making an online donation now.