Tchaikovsky died, as a commentator has put it, from ‘culturally enforced homophobia’. It is distressing to research his relationship to the woman he would marry; the unravelling of that marriage; his—also his brother’s—torments as they carried their barely concealed shame and embarrassment, the constant danger of being outed. Finally, a farewell dinner with ‘friends and scholars’ where he had to choose between exile to a labor camp in Siberia, and drinking poison that evening. Early descriptions and biographies tell us that Pyotr Ilyich alone amongst the guests was taken ill. He would die over some days, from cholera induced by ‘drinking tainted water’, they said.
This glorious Fourth Symphony was composed entirely in 1877, and a year later Tchaikovsky—generally inclined towards lacerating self-criticism— could write: “I adore terribly this child of mine; it is one of only a few works with which I have not experienced disappointment.” The composer’s enchantment with this work was to last his whole life.
Famously, it is a symphony with a program, and the matter for us to confront immediately is FATE. The opening assault of the first movement—French horns, then trumpets delivering apocalyptic fanfares—does not offer much room for misinterpretation, and from then on, we are dealing with a range of human emotions reacting to FATE. This includes fear and cowering, trying to fight back against losing odds, storming rage, clutching at glimmers of hope, dreamy memories of delight, and, strikingly, a very (perhaps ‘Russian’) style of gloomy introspection made piquant with gallows humor.
This first movement is of extreme compositional complexity, an extension of the formal compositional structures that Tchaikovsky inherited. Emotionally, it is draining.
The next movement offers us a deep sadness with glimpses of solace and cheer. I would describe the emotional states of the symphony after the first movement as manageable, rather than overwhelming: who knows, there may be acceptance available in the face of the existential threat of FATE. The solo oboe hands her sadness to the violins, and finally to the cellos, who descend further into the darkness. Please enjoy Tchaikovsky’s genius for commentary from the musical sidelines, usually from solo woodwind players.
Almost without pause we find ourselves in the third movement. In a well-ordered display we hear the strings (no bows, plucked strings only), then woodwind with distinct melodic material suggesting different types of dance motion, finally the brass playing a ghostly march. Tchaikovsky wrote of this movement “the spirit is neither cheerful nor sad.”
Minimum pause, and the major-key Finale throws itself at us. Maybe we have forgotten the fateful menace and agonies of the first movement...and at this point I hand you back to Tchaikovsky’s own commentary:
The fourth movement. If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible FATE appears again and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves! How happy they are that all their feelings are simple and straightforward. Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Joy is a simple but powerful force. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.