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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

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

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 42 mins

THE BACKSTORY By the dawn of 1877 the thirty-six-year-old Tchaikovsky 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 (thanks to the commercial success of her recently deceased husband, an engineer from Riga), maternally productive (with eighteen variously fathered children), and musically adept, she had positioned herself in Moscow society as a notable patron of the arts and as a collector of musicians. She was a friend of the eminent pianist and conductor Nicolai Rubinstein and had recently added to her entourage the alluring young violinist Yosif Yosifovich Kotek, a former pupil and sometime companion of Tchaikovsky’s. 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, which took the form of a generous but undemanding commission to make an arrangement of one of Kotek’s compositions.

That was that, Tchaikovsky assumed. But in February of 1877 a second letter arrived from von Meck. “I should like very much to tell you at length of my fancies and thoughts about you,” she wrote, “but I fear to take up your time, of which you have so little to spare. Let me say only that my feeling for you is a thing of the spirit and very dear to me.” Tchaikovsky responded the next day: “Why do you hesitate to tell me all your thoughts? . . . Perhaps I know you better than you imagine.” An affair was born, but an affair with a supremely strange twist. By von Meck’s decree, they were not to meet in person. For the next thirteen years they exchanged a flood of effusive correspondence. She deposited 500 rubles in Tchaikovsky’s bank account every month, an act of benefaction that freed him significantly to pursue his artistic goals without having to undertake “work for hire” to pay the bills. There was a price to pay for this. Von Meck was neurotic and mercurial, but Tchaikovsky handled his patron adeptly until she suddenly broke off their relationship, almost without warning, in 1890.

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. The explanation for this rash act is open to a broad range of speculation and interpretation. Perhaps it had to do with anxiety about his homosexuality. Perhaps it was an exploit of filial devotion to an eighty-one-year-old father who viewed marriage as the principal goal of a man’s life. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest, maintained that the bride, Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova, a former pupil of Tchaikovsky’s, flung herself on his brother and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t marry her—a tale that modern scholars have largely discounted. 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, remained unconscious for two weeks, and woke up to a life that would not henceforth include Antonina, though they were never divorced.

THE MUSIC 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 first movement will give me a great deal of trouble with respect to orchestration. It is very long and complicated: at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple, and it will be easy and pleasant to orchestrate them.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment is apt. The center of gravity is very much placed on the first movement (Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima, in movimento di valse), and the other three stand as considerably shorter and less imposing pendants. When von Meck begged him to reveal the meaning behind the music, Tchaikovsky broke his rule of not revealing his secret programs and penned a rather detailed description of the opening movement:

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the central theme. This is Fate, i.e., that fateful force which prevents the impulse towards happiness from entirely achieving its goal, forever on jealous guard lest peace and well-being should ever be attained in complete and unclouded form, hanging above us like the Sword of Damocles, constantly and unremittingly poisoning the soul. Its force is invisible, and can never be overcome. Our only choice is to surrender to it, and to languish fruitlessly. . . .

Even if we recognize that Tchaikovsky penned these words after he had essentially completed the symphony, we may find something authentic and convincing in his program, given the emotional roller coaster he had ridden in the preceding months.

On the other hand, music is not prose. To his friend and fellow composer Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky wrote: “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. . . . But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He then went on to suggest that, on a technical level, “my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not, of course, copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.” By this Tchaikovsky was surely referring to the pervasiveness of the “Fate” theme, the fanfare motif that helps bind the opening movement together and 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. Tchaikovsky’s harmonic procedures, however, are far different from Beethoven’s. Tchaikovsky was natively drawn to rhapsody, Beethoven to discipline. The harmonic scheme Tchaikovsky adopts here, which involves enunciating the tonic of F minor firmly in the introduction and the turbulent waltz theme of the movement’s main section, and then all but ignoring that key until almost the end, would have struck Beethoven as unfeasible.

As we have already mentioned, the ensuing movements are less monumental in their architecture and apparently less all-embracing in their musical autobiography. A famous oboe solo opens the Andantino, a generally melancholy movement. “You feel nostalgic for the past,” Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck of this movement, “yet no compulsion to start life over again. Life has wearied you; it is pleasant to pause and weigh things up.” Much of the movement does seem to carry a heavy weight on its shoulders, but—as in the first movement—the proceedings are leavened by glimpses of balletic arabesques.

Certainly the Scherzo is the most balletic movement of all, from its fleet pizzicato opening to the tangy, wind-flavored peasant dance at its center. Although audiences had some trouble with this symphony when it was new, this Scherzo movement rarely failed to elicit compliments.

After the ethereal pianissimo conclusion of the Scherzo, 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

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.