The Kennedy Center

Fate, Op. 77

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Peter Laki

Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy about Fate had a singular fate of its own. Deeply hurt by the harsh criticism from Mily Balakirev, who played a role in his life as a mentor of sorts and whose opinion he respected, Tchaikovsky destroyed the score, although the orchestral parts survived, making posthumous reconstruction and publication possible. The entire story shows how vulnerable Tchaikovsky was to the opinion of this self-appointed musical guru who had begun to gather around him some of the most talented Russian composers. Tchaikovsky, recently graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and a young faculty member at the sister institution in Moscow, was never part of the "Balakirev circle," soon to be known as the "Mighty Handful," but Balakirev-only three years older than Tchaikovsky-tried hard to recruit him to be one of his protégés. The professional relationship between these two very dissimilar personalities continued, in one form or another, for the better part of two decades.

One criticism against Fatum-this one levelled by Tchaikovsky's Conservatory classmate and lifelong friend, Herman Laroche-was that it was too close in form and style to the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. The connections are immediately audible: the somber opening followed by a succession of episodes of contrasting characters and the triumphant resolution at the end are all familiar Lisztian procedures. Tchaikovsky would never come so close to his older Hungarian contemporary, about whom he was rather ambivalent: among his known comments on Liszt's music, we find words of both admiration and disparagement.

The posthumously published score of Fatum contains some lines by the Russian poet Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855), inserted as a motto. These lines were not chosen by Tchaikovsky but by a writer named Sergei Rachinsky. Apparently, a Lisztian symphonic poem couldn't do without a program or at least an epigraph, and Tchaikovsky seems to have gone along with the suggestion:

Knowest thou what the grey-haired Melchizedek

Said as he bade farewell to life?

A man is born a slave,

A slave he goes to his grave,

And even death will scarce reveal to him,

Why he walked this sorrowful vale of tears,

Why he suffered, wept, endured, then vanished!

With their relentless pessimism, these lines are probably not the best match to Tchaikovsky's music which, at least, traverses a wider range of emotions. Inspired by Liszt's technique of character transformation (but not copying it exactly), Tchaikovsky derived most of his thematic material from a single short motif of only a few notes, played in turn as a slow, lugubrious introduction, a broad lyrical theme and a sprightly rhythmic idea. The austere "Fate" theme, with its heavy drumstrokes, appears at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the piece; the last time, however, its dark G minor is suddenly transformed into a resplendent C major, providing what could be seen as a victory over Fate. Yet the ending is ambiguous, since C major is not arrived at by the classical chord progressions one would expect, but appears rather unexpectedly following some highly unsettling harmonies.

Although Balakirev was harshly critical of Fatum, he did not lose faith in Tchaikovsky. Soon after the fiasco, he recommended that Tchaikovsky write another symphonic poem, this time on a more specific literary model: he suggested Romeo and Juliet and provided some very definite ideas about how the subject should be approached. Tchaikovsky followed the advice and composed what would become his first great masterpiece. He subjected Romeo and Juliet to a major revision about a decade later (1880), this time writing the piece that he wanted to write. Yet even after that experience, he was inclined to do Balakirev's bidding: even his Manfred Symphony of 1885 took its origin from an idea from his prospective mentor turned colleague.

Another three years later, he composed Hamlet at the instigation of his brother Modest. It is striking how faithful Tchaikovsky remained to the idea of the symphonic poem even as he went on to complete six non-programmatic symphonies. Unlike the Germans who would write one or the other but not both, Tchaikovsky never felt "absolute" and "program" music to be mutually exclusive. And as we shall see in the Fourth Symphony, performed after intermission, programmatic ideas (about Fate in particular!) secretly informed even those works for which no verbal commentary was ever published.