Symphony No. 4, in F minor, Opus 36
I. Andante sostenuto; moderato con anima (in movimento di valse)
II. Andantino in modo di canzona
III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato; Allegro
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco
PETER ILYITCH TCHAIKOVSKY was a child of the earth, and of the nation of Pushkin and Dostoievsky. Musical purists look down upon him. He was not a classicist. He had not the heroic strength and will of a Beethoven. He spoke in music as one of the insulted and injured. He was all feeling. In his scores he cries out, shakes his fist at the skies, remembers the agony of thwarted love, and the end of every man’s desire. Admire such a man, such :1 neurotic, such a pessimist? I profoundly esteem and rate him a thousand times higher than those who have never known Tchaikovsky’s weakness and terror, who shudder at such emotional indecencies, and pull their skirts together at the sound of them. How can they know what Tchaikovsky is saying?
George Moore remarked that we do not realize how like our destiny is to ourselves. The first representative symphony of Tchaikovskythe three earlier ones are negligiblewould quite naturally treat of that monster Fate, against whom no man may prevail. Such a concept would be temperamental with this composer, and the undercurrent of much of his music. As it happened, the writing of this symphony was coincident with two events of momentous consequence to Tchaikovsky as man and composer. In these events two women were concerned. One secured him his creative career. The other almost terminated it.
In the early part of 1877 Tchaikovsky began the first movement of the Fourth symphony. In July he made a catastrophic marriage. A young woman had written a letter telling him that she loved him, and had pulled terribly on his heart-strings of pity. There was a scenefit material for a Dostoievsky. In a mood, says the composer’s brother, Modeste, of “abnormal and fatal exaltation” they agreed to marry. Tchaikovsky was in agony. “To live thirty years,” he wrote a friend, “with’ an innate antipathy to marriage, and then suddenly, by force of circumstances, to find one’s self engaged to a woman one does not love is very painful.” It was all of that! The wretched man consoled himself “with the thought that we can-not escape our fate, and there was something fatalistic in my meeting with this girl.” So he wrote to his guardian angel, Nadejda von Meck, the woman to whom he never spoke, but in letters poured out his soul. Soon after the wedding the composer made what may be termed an indirect attempt at suicide. Thirteen days after the housewarming he incontinently fled, with the appearance of a madman, and was two days unconscious. The doctors announced that it would be out of the question for Tchaikovsky and his wife ever to live together. But that was not all. What has not, up to the time of this writing, been published in any biography in English; what Tchaikovsky never told the world, or confided until years later to a friend, and what that friend, who was Kashkin, waited long to reveal, was the mental. condition of the bride. She was subnormal, almost half-witted, which explains many of her later and otherwise in-comprehensible actions, and eventually led to her being placed in an asylum! Undoubtedly ignorant of this when he married, Tchaikovsky never blamed his wife for what had taken place, and Modeste Tchaikovsky, whose biography of his brother is engrossing reading, contents himself with remarking that “following his [Tchaikovsky’s] example, I cannot complete this chapter without exonerating her from all that happened.” It was a pathological business all round!
It need hardly be said that during this time Tchaikovsky did not compose. The symphony lay unheeded, and would never have been finished had it not been for the woman whose noble and generous friendship makes a remarkable chapter in the history of music. Nadejda Filaretovna von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian engineer, had come to know Tchaikovsky through his music. She had given him commissions, and paid him so handsomely that the composer, though poverty-stricken, had finally refused to accept the sums, saying that he valued her friendship above her patronage. When, as a result of his marital debacle, Tchaikovsky, penniless, had to be taken away from Russia and any reminder of former scenes, Madame von Meck provided the funds. At the same time she asked him to accept from her an annual pension which would free him from care and enable him to give his whole time to composition. To this gift, with infinite generosity and comprehension of his characterand with what wisdom!she attached one condition, which was, that they should never meet. That gift was accepted in the spirit in which it was made, and the condition fulfilled. Tchaikovsky spent nearly two years outside Russia, living principally in Switzerland and Italy, gradually recovering from his shock. He carried his symphony with him in his wanderings, and by December, 1878, it was completed. His letters of that period to Madame von Meck are full of it”our symphony,” he calls it. The dedication is “To my best friend.” This is the background of ‘the Fourth symphony. Is it any wonder that the work is uneven and feverish, that the instrumentation is now brilliant and now black as night, that the figure of Fate, typified by a blaring fanfare of the brass, stalks imperious through the score?
There are four movements. The first is introduced by the Fate theme. The music pursues a restless and fitful course. The motive of destiny twice intervenes. “So is all life,” wrote Tchaikovsky to his patroness, “but a continual alternation between grim truth and fleeting dreams of happiness. There is no haven. The waves drive us hither and thither until the sea engulfs us. This is approximately the program of the first movement.”
He says that “The second movement shows another phase of sadness. Here is that’ melancholy feeling which enwraps one when he sits alone in the house at night, exhausted by work; the book which he has taken to read slips from his hand; a swarm of reminiscences has risen. 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. … And all that is now so far away, so far away.”
Of the third movement Tchaikovsky wrote in an earlier letter that it would have “quite a new orchestral effect, from which I expect great things.” It is the movement in which the three principal divisions of the orchestrastrings, woodwind and brass–are used in succession. This popular movement, the Scherzo, begins with the “pizzicato ostinato,” in which the players pluck the strings instead of using the bow. The device has a fantastical effect, not unsuggestive of Autumn wind and whirling [eaves. The wind instruments play a skirling tune. A march-like passage for brass and kettledrums ensues. Finally fragments of all these three sections are tossed back and forth by the instruments. “Here,” wrote Tchaikovsky, “are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated. The mood is now gay, now mournful. One thinks about nothing; one gives the fancy loose rein, and there is pleasure in drawings of marvelous lines. Suddenly rushes into the imagination the picture of a drunken peasant and a gutter-song. Military music is heard passing in the distance. These are disconnected pictures, which come and go in the brain of the sleeper. They have nothing to do with reality; they are unintelligible, bizarre, out at the el-bows.”
“Go to the people,” he writes, in explanation of his vodka-ridden finale. There is heard, soon after, a crash of’ cymbals and whirling descent of strings, a Russian folksong, “In the Fields There Stood a Birch-tree,” played by the woodwinds. This movement is “the picture of a folk-holiday. Scarcely have you for-gotten yourself, scarcely have you had time to be absorbed in the happiness of others, before untiring fate again announces its approach. The other children of men are not concerned with you. They neither see nor feel that you are lonely or sad… Rejoice in the happiness of othersand you can still live.” But the rejoicing is hectic. It is interrupted again by the sardonic proclamation of Fate. The reckless conclusion is brilliant, yet akin to despair.