Tchaikovsky: Finale: Allegro con fuoco from Symphony No. 4

Finale: Allegro con fuoco from Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36

PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: 1877. The score bears a dedication “to my best friend,” by which Tchaikovsky meant his patron, Mme. Nadezhda von Meck

WORLD PREMIERE: February 10, 1878.  Nicolai Rubinstein conducted at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow

US PREMIERE: February 1, 1890. Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony, at the Metropolitan Opera House

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2016. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings

DURATION: About 10 mins

By the dawn of 1877 Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) already stood at the forefront of his generation of Russian composers. That year, two things occurred that had a decisive influence on the direction his path would take. Both were fraught with problems. Either could have derailed him entirely.

The first was the consolidation of his relationship with Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck. Immensely wealthy and musically adept, she had positioned herself in Moscow society as a notable patron of the arts and as a collector of musicians, including pianist and conductor Nicolai Rubinstein and the young violinist Yosif Yosifovich Kotek. She adored Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession, and in December 1876 she used Rubinstein and Kotek as go-betweens for her first contact with the composer. Tchaikovsky embarked on his involvement with von Meck and the composition of his Fourth Symphony practically at the same time, and the two “projects” were greatly intermeshed in his mind. In his letters to von Meck he often referred to it as “our symphony,” sometimes even as “your symphony.” By May he completed the lion’s share of work on the new piece. “I should like to dedicate it to you,” he wrote on May 13, “because I believe you would find in it an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.”

Then a second bizarre thing happened. He got married on the spur of the moment to Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova, a former pupil. The explanation for this rash act is open to a broad range of speculation and interpretation. Whatever the reason, the hastily arranged marriage took place on July 6, 1877. Two weeks later Tchaikovsky fled in panic and spent the summer at his sister’s estate in Ukraine, estranged from Antonina. In September he returned to his bride in Moscow to try to make another go of it, but this time the effort lasted only eleven days. At that point, Tchaikovsky fell terribly ill, fled to Saint Petersburg, had a nervous breakdown, and woke up to a life that would not henceforth include Antonina, though they were never divorced.  During this misadventure, the Fourth Symphony had been put on hold. Only in the latter half of 1877 did Tchaikovsky return to edit and orchestrate what he had composed between February and May. “Our symphony progresses,” he wrote to von Meck on August 24.

The Symphony is bound together by the pervasive “Fate” theme, the fanfare motif that serves as a sonic landmark for listeners somewhat in the way the famous “ta-ta-ta-daaaa” of Beethoven’s Fifth does in that far more compact piece. The Finale erupts with a fortissimo explosion for the full orchestra, with far-from-bashful timpani, bass drum, and cymbals. A folk tune, “The Little Birch Tree,” furnishes the stuff of the movement’s main theme, and the brasses revive the “Fate” motif from the first movement as a disturbing presence in the carnival atmosphere of this otherwise buoyant Finale.

—James M. Keller

(November 2017)