The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard E. Rodda

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk.

Died November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg.


The Fourth Symphony was a product of the most turbulent time of Tchaikovsky's life - 1877, when he met two women who forced him to evaluate himself as he never had before. The first was the sensitive, music-loving widow of a wealthy Russian railroad baron, Nadezhda von Meck. Mme. von Meck had been enthralled by Tchaikovsky's music, and she first contacted him at the end of 1876 to commission a work. She paid him extravagantly, and soon an almost constant stream of notes and letters passed between them: hers contained money and effusive praise; his, thanks and an increasingly greater revelation of his thoughts and feelings. She became not only the financial backer who allowed him to quit his irksome teaching job at the Moscow Conservatory to devote himself to composition, but also the sympathetic sounding-board for reports on the whole range of his activities - emotional, musical, personal. Though they never met, her place in Tchaikovsky's life was enormous and beneficial.

The second woman to enter Tchaikovsky's life in 1877 was Antonina Miliukov, an unnoticed student in one of his large lecture classes at the Conservatory who had worked herself into a passion over her young professor. Tchaikovsky paid her no special attention, and he had quite forgotten her when he received an ardent love letter professing her flaming and unquenchable desire to meet him. Tchaikovsky (age 37), who should have burned the thing, answered the letter of the 28-year-old Antonina in a polite, cool fashion, but did not include an outright rejection of her advances. He had been considering marriage for almost a year in the hope that it would give him both the stable home life that he had not enjoyed in the twenty years since his mother died, as well as to help dispel the all-too-true rumors of his homosexuality. He believed he might achieve both these goals with Antonina. He could not see the situation clearly enough to realize that what he hoped for was impossible - a pure, platonic marriage without its physical and emotional realities. Further letters from Antonina implored Tchaikovsky to meet her, and threatened suicide out of desperation if he refused. What a welter of emotions must have gripped his heart when, just a few weeks later, he proposed marriage to her! Inevitably, the marriage crumbled within days of the wedding amid Tchaikovsky's searing self-deprecation.

It was during May and June that Tchaikovsky sketched the Fourth Symphony, finishing the first three movements before Antonina began her siege. The finale was completed by the time he proposed. Because of this chronology, the program of the Symphony was not a direct result of his marital disaster. All that - the July wedding, the mere eighteen days of bitter conjugal farce, the two separations - postdated the actual composition of the Symphony by a few months, though the orchestration took place during the painful time from September to January when the composer was seeking respite in a half dozen European cities from St. Petersburg to San Remo. What Tchaikovsky found in his relationship with this woman (who by 1877 already showed signs of approaching the door of the mental ward in which, still legally married to him, she died in 1917) was a confirmation of his belief in the inexorable workings of Fate in human destiny. He later wrote to Mme. von Meck, "We cannot escape our Fate, and there was something fatalistic about my meeting with this girl." The relationships with the two women of 1877, Mme. von Meck and Antonina, occupy important places in the composition of this Symphony: one made it possible, the other made it inevitable, but the vision and its fulfillment were Tchaikovsky's alone.

After the premiere, Tchaikovsky wrote to Mme. von Meck, with great trepidation, explaining the emotional content of the Fourth Symphony:

"The introduction [blaring brasses heard immediately in a motto theme that recurs several times throughout the Symphony] is the kernel, the chief thought of the whole Symphony. This is Fate, the fatal power that hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealously provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds - a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head, that poisons continuously the soul. This might is overpowering and invincible. There is nothing to do but to submit and vainly complain [the melancholy, syncopated shadow-waltz of the main theme, heard in the strings]. The feeling of desperation and loneliness grows stronger and stronger. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and lull one's self in dreams? [The second theme is begun by the clarinet, with trailing sighs from the rest of the woodwinds.] Deeper and deeper the soul is sunk in dreams. All that was dark and joyless is forgotten....

"No - these are but dreams: roughly we are awakened by Fate. [The blaring brass fanfare over a wave of timpani begins the development section.] Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness. Something like this is the program of the first movement.

"The second movement shows another phase of sadness. How sad it is that so much has already been and gone! And yet it is a pleasure to think of the early years. One mourns the past and has neither the courage nor the will to begin a new life. One is rather tired of life. One would fain rest awhile, recalling happy hours when young blood pulsed warm through our veins and life brought satisfaction. We remember irreparable loss. But these things are far away. It is sad, yet sweet, to lose one's self in the past.

"There is no determined feeling, no exact expression in the third movement. Here are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated. Suddenly there rushes into the imagination the picture of a drunken peasant and a gutter song. Military music is heard passing in the distance. There are disconnected pictures which come and go in the brain of the sleeper. They have nothing to do with reality; they are unintelligible, bizarre.

"As to the finale, if you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity. The picture of a folk holiday. [The finale employs the folk song A Birch Stood in the Meadow, presented simply by the woodwinds after the noisy flourish of the opening.] Hardly have we had time to forget ourselves in the happiness of others when indefatigable Fate reminds us once more of its presence. The other children of men are not concerned with us. How merry and glad they all are. All their feelings are so inconsequential, so simple. And do you still say that all the world is immersed in sorrow? There still is happiness, simple, naive happiness. Rejoice in the happiness of others - and you can still live.

"There is not a single line in this Symphony that I have not felt in my whole being and that has not been a true echo of the soul."