Personal anguish and artistic creativity are frequently linked. Many of Beethoven’s most beloved works were written as he struggled with increasing deafness; author J. K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series while a single mother struggling to live on welfare; and some of Claude Monet’s most celebrated paintings were completed in the months following the death of his 32-year old wife Camille. Such was the case with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose struggle to suppress or deny his homosexuality led him to a desperate decision to marry one of his female students in 1876, just before beginning work on his Fourth Symphony. In August, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, "I have decided to marry. It is inevitable. I must do this, and not only for myself, but also for you and for ... all whom I love.” Unsurprisingly, the marriage was doomed, and Tchaikovsky moved out of the couple’s apartment after less than 3 months. Writing to his brother, he said, "Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature." In light of this intensely personal struggle, it is little wonder that Tchaikovsky produced a symphony dedicated to the concept of fate. He described the Fourth Symphony as depicting "the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain." From this tortuous and anxiety-ridden period in the composer’s life sprang one of the pinnacles of late 19th-century Romantic orchestral music, a symphony of extraordinary beauty and profound depth of emotion that still resonates today.
Completed in 1878, the work is dedicated to Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who supported Tchaikovsky as his patroness for over 13 years. Their relationship was perhaps the most intimate Tchaikovsky ever had with a woman, although they deliberately never met in person. Over 1,200 letters were exchanged between them, in which they delved deeply into discussions of art, music, and philosophy, corresponding as partners of equal intellect and artistic sophistication. It was at von Meck’s suggestion that Tchaikovsky created a “program” for the symphony, explaining its motives and intent.
The first movement opens with an ominous fanfare from the horns, which Tchaikovsky was clear represented the concept of Fate. This harsh, unrelenting music will return throughout the movement as a reminder that, regardless of the diversions we may enjoy, Fate will have the last word. A heart-wrenching first theme emerges, evoking a sense of lamentation and extreme pathos. This is followed by a second theme, begun in the woodwinds, which offers a brief respite from the sense of melancholy. As it will throughout the movement, however, Fate returns, this time in the trumpets, and puts an end to the moment of repose. The unsettled feeling of the entire movement is heightened by the fact that much of it is written in 9/8 time, with melodies beginning just after the beat, giving a feeling of breathlessness to the music. The alteration of lamentation with the inevitable return of the Fate music continues, culminating in a rapid-fire coda and one last wail of the string section, before Fate delivers its final crushing blows.
The second movement, “Andantino,” continues the melancholy mood, opening with a wistful oboe solo accompanied by pizzicato strings. Tchaikovsky indicates “in modo di canzona” (in the manner of a song) at the outset, and indeed, the entire movement is a song of sadness, recurring in various guises. A brief march-like melody provides a bit of respite in the middle of the movement, but eventually cedes the stage back to the opening melancholy song, played in the end by a solo bassoon and then slowly dying away.
It is only in the third movement that the mood begins to lighten. In what Tchaikovsky described as “a new orchestral effect, which I have designed myself,” the entire string section plays pizzicato throughout the movement, providing an atmosphere of playfulness and fun. Tchaikovsky wrote, “This is whimsical arabesques, vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication.” Indeed, the usage of the pizzicato strings, combined with woodwind solos which evoke dancing sprites and a tiny military band in the brass, give the movement a fanciful air and provide a welcome respite from the seriousness of the previous two movements.
In the final movement, Tchaikovsky chooses joy. He wrote to Madame von Meck, “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings.” The movement opens with a cymbal crash and racing unison strings, eventually yielding to what will be the main melody of the movement, a Russian folk song called “In the Field There Stands a Birch Tree.” It is notable that the birch is an almost sacred tree in Russian culture, symbolizing strength and protection from evil. The melody is passed among the orchestra in increasing fervor until suddenly the Fate theme reasserts itself as if to put a stop to the celebration. This time, however, Fate is quelled by joy, and the movement races to a thrilling conclusion. At the end of his letter to Madame von Meck Tchaikovsky wrote, “Joy is a simple but powerful force. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.” Indeed, it is clear that Tchaikovsky chose life, and his message of overcoming despair to find joy continues to resonate with audiences worldwide, almost 150 years later.