Tchaikovsky’s musical confession in F minor

Fate - Tchaikovsky's obsession. © Charles Thibo
Fate – Tchaikovsky’s obsession. © Charles Thibo

Occasionally I like to make fun of myself. I am less enthusiastic about someone else making fun of me. And whenever I listen to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, I have the feeling that the composer is making fun of the audience and thus of myself. Do I mind? Actually, I find it hilarious! The symphony is written in four movements, but the four movements are so different one from each other that they could be four different symphonies by themselves without anything linking them.

A strange man, a strange idea, a strange piece. But a composition that enchants me every single time I listen to it. And yesterday evening’s performance by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg was no exception to that rule. The orchestra demonstrated again its technical brilliance and clearly felt at home with Tchaikovsky.

A tormented soul

The composer had a precise idea of what he wanted to do when he started writing down the first notes during the winter of 1876/77. To his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote: “You are asking me what the program of this symphony is? My answer is: There is none. But it is difficult to answer this question. How should I express the fuzzy sensations I experience when I am writing an instrumental piece? It is a purely lyrical process. It is a musical confession of the soul that has gone through many torments and that by nature is expressed in sounds…”

Tchaikovsky nevertheless gives a few hints: The first movement is about fate, an idea that obsessed Tchaikovsky. Fate as the obstacle to happiness. Doom would probably be the more correct word. The second movement is about fear and loneliness, the melancholy a man feels at night when he is alone, tired and offers no resistance to memories. “The third movement does no express specific feelings”, he writes to Mrs. von Meck, to whom the symphony is dedicated. He speaks of capricious arabesques and blurred images. The last movement is about joy, the joy others feel without noticing that oneself [Tchaikovsky] is sad and haunted by the feeling of doom. The composer concludes the analysis by quoting the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine: Music starts, where words fail.

The longest pizzicato ever

In another letter, addressed to his pupil Sergei Tanayev, he characterized the symphony as a symphonic poem to whom somebody has by chance added three more movements to form a symphony. That aptly sums up what I felt when I heard it for the first time: The first movement opens with a fanfare played by the horns and the bassoon. The main theme is a long drawn out plaintive melody and follows a rather classical structure just like the second movement with that wonderfully melancholic theme for the violins. The third movements opens with a long pizzicato* part of the strings alone, one of the longest I know, suddenly interrupted by the oboe, then the bassoon, the flute and the piccolo flute. Very special, very daring and very worthwhile to be listened to repeatedly. The fourth movement starts on a theme that could have been written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky himself said it was a nod to the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”. It takes up the “doom” theme from the first movement, magnifies it… and ends on a thunderous finale.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is – despite many typical elements – unlike any other of his symphonies. Actually it is unlike any other symphonies I know. Parts of it are so radically different from what one would expect from Tchaikovsky! It really stands out just like his symphonic poem “Francesca di Rimini”  Op. 32, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s novel “Divina Commedia”, and it is a lasting proof of the man’s genius. The symphonic poem was written a year before the fourth symphony and the two pieces have common elements. Both pieces are available on a recording by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

© Charles Thibo

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