Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink, 1994

This is another one I was fortunate enough to hear in person, having gone to see a local university symphony perform it at symphony hall. Tickets were cheap, and seats were automatically assigned. As it turns out, my guest and I were fortunate enough to sit front and center, literally. I also happened to run into some of the performers a few days later and chat with them. The front row has its perks.

This is the first out-of-order symphony we’ll be addressing. I did Tchaikovsky’s fifth a number of weeks ago, and it was again because I had the opportunity to hear it live. I was already somewhat familiar with these works, but I figured the opportunity to hear them in person was a good chance to write about them in more detail. After having done Tchaikovsky’s fifth, now we are working our way back to the fourth. Don’t know which of his will come next, but I have some others in line first.

Symphony number four was written in 1877-78, and there is a lot of history behind the piece with Nadezhda von Meck and some program notes that apparently did more harm to the piece than good. It’s not in typical symphonic structure, and
does have thematic elements to it that differ from the typical sonata form narrative (at least to me). Tchaikovsky himself referred to the piece as a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth with the “kernel” of a fanfare in the beginning of the first movement as a representation of fate. Just read the Wikipedia article; there are some quotes Tchaikovsky himself makes about this fate idea:

(on the fanfare at the beginning) “the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony”

(on fate [and perhaps life in general]) : “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…”

“No haven exists … Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths”


Doesn’t sound much like a feel-good piece, and the beginning movement is certainly a towering, powerful, intensely Russian piece of music.

Another thing that I love about Tchaikovsky’s music is his struggle with the idea of symphonic structure and the typical sonata form. Wikipedia states aptly, “The Fourth Symphony is where Tchaikovsky’s struggles with Western sonata form came to a head.” I am not even mildly familiar with his first three symphonies, and haven’t even listened to 2 or 3, but know that no. 1 was not widely accepted, and maybe even considered a bit of a failure (at least at first). It seems that no. 4 is where he comes into his own. His struggles were with melody and emotion, melody because (as I believe I read somewhere, or maybe [even better] thought of on my own) a melody is complete and entirely independent, and it acts like an anchor that brings the story-like narrative progress of sonata form to a halt. Tchaikovsky’s talent was what damned him and bogged down some of his writing, it seemed. It stops the forward motion. Tchaikovsky was clearly a genius melodist, but in the form of a symphony, he apparently had some issues in keeping the balance of development and progress along with his talent for stirring and beautiful music.

Secondly, emotion. Needless to say, this piece (as with many of his others) is emotionally supercharged, and in the classical German model of the symphony, there typically wasn’t room to be emotional and dramatic and biographical, or it wasn’t expected. Tchaikovsky couldn’t avoid it, especially at this point in his life. So what we have is a symphony that plays out (at least to me) more like a symphonic poem, with a much more obvious narrative and identifiable themes, and even after listening to it just a few times, it quickly becomes familiar in that you can almost feel that fate theme creeping up and you know where it’s going to rear its head again, not just in the first movement, but in reincarnations and variations throughout the piece. I’m not going to do a play-by-play of this piece. I’ve listened to it a lot, and I absolutely love it, but I’m not in the mood. Let’s go.

Mvt 1: The fate theme is a TOWERING fanfare, comes to an abrupt halt with two lightning-bolt like chords, and then softens out a bit. That is our introduction, and it’s strongly impressed into the listeners’ minds (especially sitting on the front row). The next theme we get is a delightfully Russian and somewhat serious triplet figure valse-style theme and it’s beautiful as a softer repose from the crashing dramatic beginning, but it carries its own weight, somewhat roller-coaster like, a bit unsettling, building and swelling but then coming back down. It’s one thing I do love about Tchaikovsky, and maybe I just have a particular liking to this kind of music, but it’s so rich and there’s always something to grab onto and be enticed or intrigued by. I’ll get to this more later too, but Tchaikovsky is SUCH an architect, not only of the structure of the music both vertically and horizontally, but also of WHERE the music plays and how it travels around the orchestra. One realizes this especially sitting and watching it in person. The question-and-answer sections throughout the piece (especially the little sections here between bassoon, oboe, flute, etc.) almost play out like a beauty pageant of repeats and callbacks, and you can see it as it travels around the orchestra. Watch the conductor’s baton, and you can see and hear how the melody dances through the ensemble. It’s brilliant.

This movement is apparently one of the longest Tchaikovsky ever wrote, and it comes out to almost half the length of the entire symphony, almost 19 minutes in this recording.

I also see something strangely apropos about a waltz representing the dance of life or portrayal of the ups and downs of the journeys of our lives; perhaps it is the up-and-down-ness of a waltz.

This piece does have its glorious happy moments, particularly almost halfway through for a few glimpses of beauty before we hear the fate theme crash back in and put a stop to it. That’s what I like about this movement, and about the entire piece: its scope and dramatic nature. This first movement, with its length and themes, is almost satisfying on its own, perhaps for a beginning listener to classical music. The last minute or so of the piece is certainly dramatic enough for someone to mistake it as the end of the piece, with full-orchestra chords and rolling timpani. It’s big.

Mvt 2: In contrast to that huge climax of the first movement, we get a solo oboe leading us into what becomes a richly and decidedly Russian-sounding theme that builds to a glorious lyrical passage reminiscent of Rachmaninoff (obviously Tchaikovsky came first; I say reminiscent only because I did his symphony no. 2 a few weeks ago and it was just chock full of these big giant melodies and this one feels very much the same way). After the oboe finishes, the strings come in with the same melody, and the rising and falling of the melody is the sonic version of the feeling you get when you are falling (when an airplane drops a bit suddenly or you go over a hill really fast in a car or you dream you are falling and are shocked awake) and your breath is kind of taken out of you and your heart skips a beat. Tchaikovsky pulls us along on this ride with the strings and it’s gorgeous. The dynamics and sweeping nature of the melody he builds here is classic. The middle section here is different, and slightly less melancholy, almost triumphant, but in a delicate, unassuming way. The main theme comes back, but in strings first this time, and flute and clarinet and bassoon kind of dance around it before it echoes back in its full form. This movement ends with a solo bassoon, and ends the movement as we drift into the third. I have to say here that Tchaikovsky apparently loves these little gimmicks (not gimmicks, really, but I explain). My favorite instruments in the whole orchestra are the bassoon, the horn, and the oboe in that order, and Tchaikovsky always writes for them exquisitely well, so it’s extremely easy to like. This piece is full of that kind of thing.

Mvt 3: The pizzicato one. This is kind of where he shows off. Not a single string is bowed in this movement, and the textures here are amazing. For the first few movements of this scherzo, it’s only strings. It is wonderfully amazing to hear this performed live. With the right balance, the pizzicato is delicate and quiet but builds and diminishes intensely and is crisp, clean, and full of motion in a unique way. It’s dainty, almost playful. Then the oboe enters with other woodwinds in what feels like a real scherzo, almost baroquely dance-like. I loved this five-and-a-half minute break from the dramatic heaviness of the rest of the piece; this way, it almost plays as an interlude. However, again, when you see this live, and get to watch the strings closely enough that you hear each and every violin and cello individually, it’s spectacular. It gave me the feeling that Tchaikovsky was showing off a bit here. The textures and motion he creates with such simple structures is brilliant. The movement does feel like it serves as a nice light delicate break from what came before, but also serves to put the fourth movement in the right context. The third movement ends quietly and serenely, and this makes the shocking beginning of the finale even more intense.

Mvt. 4: I knew this was coming, but after being entranced by the dancing and dallying and quiet plucking of the third movement, even interrupted by the ruffling of pages and grabbing of bows to prepare for the fourth movement, this crashing beginning still gave me a jolt. It’s toweringly, largely, fascinatingly gorgeous. It’s at a very brisk tempo and the high strings play sixteenth notes throughout most of the beginning. It has to be one of the most enlivening bits of music ever. The second theme (between the running strings of the beginning) is played in the brass and calls back the dramatics and darkness of the fate theme. I enjoy very much how this movement is not only exciting and enjoyable from an emotional perspective, even from someone who has no understanding of classical music, but it also has a balance all its own, with the changes of themes and contrast between them. It’s very fulfilling. We get the echo of the lightning bolt themes from the beginning of the piece here, along with a more melodic version of the brass theme from this movement played in strings. Honestly I can’t get enough of this opening theme from this movement, and towards the end it gets even bigger, with brass figures over it, and everything leads furiously towards the end in a fantastically Russian coda. It makes you hold on tight to your seats, almost white-knuckled to the end. It’s the kind of conclusion where you don’t know if it’s more appropriate for the audience to roar in applause the moment it’s over, or just to let that final chord hang in the air for a silent ten seconds or so before rejoicing, like savoring the aftertaste of a fine wine.

Typical awesome Tchaikovsky.

In our next issue, coverage of another very standard symphony in the repertoire that I also had a chance to hear earlier in the week, and actually for the first time live.


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