MONDAY, November 11, 2019
Initial critical reaction to the work was unfavorable. Tchaikovsky was in Florence, Italy when the symphony was premiered and received word only from von Meck at first. His closest friends were so unsure about parts of the work that they did not say anything to him. A telegram from Rubinstein and the other musicians involved in the performances assured him only that the symphony had been well played. After a month, the composer wrote to Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev replied promptly and, as per his nature, all too honestly. Taneyev had found the symphony excellent in parts but less impressive overall. While he admired the first movement, he also considered it overlong. This, he thought, gave the work as a whole the feeling of a symphonic poem with three additional movements attached to justify it being called a symphony. Rubinstein had liked the finale best. Tchaikovsky replied defensively to Taneyev but was appreciative of his candor. He also suspected—rightly, it turned out—that Taneyev was hiding the news of a lukewarm reception to the premiere. At its St. Petersburg premiere the following November, the symphony was better received.
Reaction to the premiere in the United States was also negative. In 1890 a reviewer for the New York Post wrote, “The Fourth Tchaikovsky Symphony proved to be one of the most thoroughly Russian, i.e. semi-barbaric, compositions ever heard in the city. … If Tchaikovsky had called his symphony ‘A Sleigh Ride Through Siberia’ no one would have found this title inappropriate.”
The British premiere was in June 1893, conducted by the composer, who was attending Cambridge University to receive an honorary doctorate, along with Camille Saint-Saëns, Max Bruch and Arrigo Boito (Edvard Grieg was also honoured, but was unable to attend in person). The hall was filled to capacity, and the symphony received great applause after each movement.
A reviewer in Germany in 1897 wrote “The composer’s twaddle disturbed my mood. The confusion in brass and the abuse of the kettledrums drove me away!”
In spite of its early critical reviews, the symphony has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, and remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies of the late 19th century. It is also ranked as one of the best of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies.