Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

July 28, 2007 at 11:25 am (books, Music, Russophilia)

tchaikovsky_51.jpg Yesterday on the way to work, I listened to the Symphony Number Four by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. In this symphony, threads of melody are interwoven throughout; they appear, disappear, reappear. On occasion, a sprightly piccolo tune brings a smile, however brief, to the lips of the listener. Finally, I was held captive by the fiery conclusion, where Tchaikovsky marshalls the full might of the symphony orchestra (in this case, the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice Abravanel.). It was hard to move and hard to believe that anything on earth really mattered except for the raw power of this magnificent music.

This is a piece that grabs you by the throat from the first and never lets go. In his biography Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, David Brown observes that “None of the first movements of his preceding symphonies had given warning of the scope, scale, sheer intensity, even violence of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.” Tchaikovsky produced not only this masterpeice but also his great opera Eugenie Onegin during a time of deep personal crisis: in 1877, he had made the disastrous mistake of marrying Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. (After several months of almost unbearable turmoil, they separated permanently.)

Tchaikovsky, a prolific, almost compulsive letter writer, confided his thoughts and feelings about this symphony to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. Of the last movement, this man, whose genius was just only now becoming apparent, who was most probably tormented by depression and doomed, because of confused and only dimly understood desires, to spend his life “looking into happiness through another man’s eyes,” wrote:

“Rejoice in others’ rejoicing. To live is still possible!”


[Tchaikovsky’s tomb at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg .]

1 Comment

  1. Leonard Bernstein: educator, performer, composer - legend « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] When Jean Cocteau asked him for some artistic direction, Sergei Diaghilev is said to have responded: “Etonne-moi!” (Astonish me!”) Bernstein does just that in the clip you just saw, and here, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do it with this electrifying performance of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony: […]

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