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Learn about the piece:

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36

Composed by

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky



2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

notes by James Keays

I. Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo
II. Andantino in modo di canzona
III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco

Composed 1877-1878. First performance: February 22, 1878, Moscow. Nikolai Rubinstein, conductor.

There is general agreement among scholars that Tchaikovsky suffered through frequent emotional crises, particularly during the time he composed his Symphony No. 4.It appears that this crisis was caused by dramatically different relationships with two women. One was Nadezhda von Meck, who provided Tchaikovsky with the opportunity to share his innermost feelings. The other was Antonina Milyukova, his partner in an ill-conceived and impossible marriage.

The first relationship began in December 1876, when Tchaikovsky accepted a commission from the wealthy widow von Meck and saw it blossom into an extraordinary fourteen year affair maintained entirely by correspondence. All personal contact was avoided, and each served as a fantasy figure for the other, their common bond being a revulsion against physical relations with the opposite sex. Nadezhda provided a generous annual stipend and both poured out their feelings in volumes of letters. It was during this highly emotional period, the spring of 1877, that Tchaikovsky began work on his Symphony No. 4. He dedicated the work to her, described it as “ours,” and confessed in writing “how much I thought of you with every bar.”

In late April or early May 1877, Tchaikovsky received a written declaration of love from Antonina Milyukova, who claimed to have met him as a student at the Conservatory. He immediately rejected her offer but later changed his mind. Perhaps he was moved by the similar plight of Tatyana in the Pushkin novel Eugene Onegin, a work that was firing his imagination at the time and would become an opera of the same name.

He might have taken the advice of well-meaning friends who hoped the relationship would provide a “cure.” The marriage took place in July. Tchaikovsky made an attempt at suicide in September. Throughout all of this emotional turmoil, he continued to pour out his feelings to Madame von Meck and worked feverishly on Symphony No. 4 and Eugene Onegin.

The premiere of the symphony took place the following February to mixed reviews. It was presented as an abstract work, but for the benefit of Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky provided a “private” program. In it, he describes the opening fanfare as “Fate, the fatal power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness.” It returns again and again to mark off the principle sections of the movement. The second movement shows “another phase of sadness. One mourns the past and has neither the courage nor the will to begin a new life.” The pizzicato figures in the scherzo “are capricious arabesques, vague figures, which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated: military music is heard passing in the distance.”

The finale is explained in part as follows: “If you have no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity.” Tchaikovsky concludes this most personal of all his large-scale works with a restatement of the “fate” theme which tries unsuccessfully to silence the folk songs and marches of the people. The program ends with the words, “Rejoice in the happiness of others and you can still live.”

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