Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
“This is Fate, the force of destiny, which ever prevents our pursuit of happiness from reaching its goal, which jealously stands watch lest our peace and well-being be full and cloudless, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads and constantly, ceaselessly poisons our souls.” With this description, Tchaikovsky gave his patron Nadezhda von Meck a rare insight into the inspiration behind what he called the “nucleus” of his 4th symphony. Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky’s music is famously emotional, he usually did not like describing his programs using words. This is one of the contradiction of Tchaikovsky’s music for the modern listener: we have these letters where Tchaikovsky described the programs or stories behind many of his most famous pieces, and yet Tchaikovsky himself would not have necessarily wanted us to know them.
Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony is at the center of all of these contradictions. It is a symphony in the grand Romantic tradition of the symphony, with all of the technical trappings that a symphony requires. It is also a piece that reflects the growing trend at that time towards symphonic poems, especially in the massive first movement. It is also a piece that seems to be inspired directly by two events in Tchaikovsky’s life, his disastrous marriage, and his unique correspondence with Nadezhda Von Meck, his patron who he corresponded with for 13 years without ever meeting her. This relationship was at its beginning when Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony, and so strong were his feelings of companionship with her that he often wrote that this 4th symphony was not “my symphony” but “our symphony.” So today we’re going to go through this symphony on two levels, the technical, explaining all of what makes this symphony so tragic, powerful, exciting, and beloved, and also the historical, going into Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, and his relationship with Nadezhda von Meck. We’ll also talk about the reception to this symphony, which, well, let’s just say it was anything but positive. Join us!