Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

FRIDAY, March 27, 2020

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

There is an incredible amount written about this symphony. You can read the above link, which is a typical Wiki article – full of a lot of information but not very well presented.

Here is something more personal…

To me this is more interesting, though more quirky.

Now, my view…

I just want to get to the music, and perhaps once again point out how incredibly stupid critics were, as well as Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries. The short story is that Tchaikovsky was caught in a war of opinions.

Caught between two factions…

On one side were those who wanted things to stay the same, to continue in the tried and true tradition of European music. These people, of course, were looking backwards and simply did not understand how the world was changing, the musical world as well as the world at large.

On the other side were the forward-looking people who wanted things to change, and as quickly as possible. I have much more respect for their view, but they too were often so polarized in their views that they became unreasonable and extreme. Those on the side of change in Russia were extremely nationalistic and wanted first and foremost to further the advance of Russian music.

Tchaikovsky was caught in the middle…

The quasi-war between these two factions very nearly destroyed him. He was an intensely sensitive man, terribly self-critical, so he was caught in the crossfire. If you read a great deal about this symphony, the 4th of six, you will find that it was anything but an instant success. Today this seems utterly incomprehensible, since once the world caught it became one of the most universally popular symphonies every written.

Finding the right recording…

This is not just difficult, it is impossible because as much as anything ever written this symphony is a very different thing to different people. I avoid at all costs any recording that does not have spectacular sound, because the sound of this symphony is spectacular. I’m picking a recording that is legendary, one that is often picked as a recording of the century, and hit holds up very well in the 21st century. YouTube does something that drives me nuts, and I can’t it, so if the 1st movement does not start at zero, you will have to set it all the way back. I usually set the beginning to 1s (one second), but if I do it for this the beginning gets clipped because there is no lead time. I will place starting points for the other movements. Be warned that I can set starting points, but I can’t make music stop. So you might want to start with the final movement, then backwards to the first.

Movement I: Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante  — Allegro vivo

All these different tempo marks just mean that this is complicated. The mood and speed keep changing. There are major sections, but the dominant feeling is minor. It is extremely intense, very emotional, and there is a theme that is linked to fate. That fate is very important here, but it comes back again in the last movement. They key is F minor, but you only know that for sure because it ends powerfully in that key.

Movement II: Andantino in modo di canzona

This literally says something sort of slow, but not too slow that is in the style of a song. It is one of the most expressive and lyrical slow movements every written, so probably nothing more is important. It is in the key of Bb minor.

Movement III: Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro

Ostinato refers to something that is continuously repeated, so this could refer to the melody or anything else, but in this case it is probably about the very repetitive rhythm. Of special interest to me is that the “scherzo” evolved from the minuet but much, much faster. It is in 3/4 but so fast that each measure sounds like a single beat. But Tchaikovsky does not do that. To know whether it is in two or four beat measures you have to see the score, but you can hear it is not in three. This has something marked as a trio in the middle, but that just means a different section from the beginning and end that has a different feel, and it moves to A major. The movement is otherwise in F major.

Movement IV: Finale: Allegro con fuoco

This is back in F major, and there is really little to say about it because it’s so powerful and manic that you just want to listen to it. However, before it’s all over, the fate theme from the 1st movement comes back. Not all symphonies repeat themes of ideas from other movements and we are left to accept, on faith, that all the movements really do belong together. However, those composers who refer to past movements do something very special to pull everything together, and when this is done there is a unification that proves all the music is really one unified creation.


2 thoughts on “Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

  1. It is almost always the most sensitive who write the most magnificent. Perhaps because they see, feel, hear the world in a much different manner than us mere mortals.

    This performance was heart-rending, I don’t have any other words for it.

    Reminds me a bit of Beethoven. Struggle, strife, much anger.. then calm, much beauty, and even hope.


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