Symphony no. 4, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchakovsky in 1874. Tchaikovsky fourth symphony

Tchakovsky in 1874

Tchaikovsky composed six symphonies, but only the last three have become standard repertoire.

What is it about Symphony no. 4 that so decisively sets it apart from the early symphonies and points the way for his last two?

For one thing, he decisively abandoned the thought of composing a proper classical symphony in at least two ways.

  • He stopped trying to master sonata form.
  • He abandoned the ideal of the symphony as rational and abstract music.

When the concept of “classical music” first emerged, it meant specifically the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. By the middle of the 19th century, the composers who sought entrance to this pantheon, except Berlioz, were all German.

The last half of the 19th century saw the rise of nationalistic music, in which various ethnic groups tried to get recognition for their traditions.

What is Russian music?

Glinka monument. Tchaikovsky fourth symphony

Glinka monument on Teatralnaya square in Saint Petersburg. Photo by Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

In Russia, the nationalistic movement began with the music of Mikhail Glinka.

Glinka had studied music by correspondence with a teacher in Berlin, and then turned to Russian folk music to establish a Russian style.

Russian folk music has some very un-German characteristics.

It has uneven metric patterns and phrase structures. It has an ambiguous tonality, such that a phrase that starts in a major key can easily end in the relative minor. Or the other way around. Glinka extended that ambiguity by using the whole-tone scale.

In 1862, Anton Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai opened the St. Petersburg conservatory, the first music school in Russia. Anton Rubinstein was something of a misfit as a composer. As Dick Strawser observed,

. . . he was too German for the Russians and too Russian for the Germans. He was too much of a Futurist for the Conservatives and, for the Futurists like Liszt and Wagner, too conservative. As a Jew who’d converted as a child to the Russian Orthodox church, he was also regarded as a Christian by Jews and as a Jew by Christians, therefore, as he put it, “neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.”

Tchaikovsky, growing up in a good middle-class family, discovered classical music in childhood. He wanted to pursue it as a career, but joined the ranks of famous composers who initially studied law instead.

When the Rubinsteins opened their conservatory, Tchaikovsky became one of its first students. After Glinka, the concept of Russianness in music split into two camps. Tchaikovsky represents the conservatory trained Russian composers. The Mighty Handful, led by Mily Balakirev, represents the group that viewed academic training as suspiciously too German.

Was Tchaikovsky not Russian enough?

Tchaikovsky made extensive use of Russian folk music in his first three symphonies, but he had been trained in German forms. He struggled with some success to master classical sonata form.

Balakirev and his group considered his usage of folk material mere decoration. They wanted not only distinctly Russian melodies, but also authentic Russian harmony and new Russian forms.

Sonata form depends on themes built of motives. Especially in the development section, the classical triumvirate fragmented the themes and manipulated the individual motives. Tchaikovsky loved Mozart’s music, but never did completely understand his forms.

Russian folk music doesn’t lend itself to division into motives. It doesn’t easily function as a classical theme. Like Glinka, Tchaikovsky left his folk tunes complete and simply repeated them in different keys and different contexts.

He considered his inability to master form a permanent defect in his compositions. But by that time, most other symphonic composers had ceased to develop sonata form. They reduced it to a formula that they could use or ignore at will. Romantics basically turned their backs on the rational mind of the Classicists in favor of emotional and sensual expression.

Beginning with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, orchestral music frequently had some kind of literary “program.” Liszt’s music, completely independent of classical German forms, provided a model for nationalist composers everywhere.

Tchaikovsky frequently expressed his disdain for program symphonies in his correspondence. In his first three symphonies, he attempted to use rational and abstract formal structures.

But he had a definite program in mind for his last three symphonies, even though he never wanted them to be known to the public.

Muti, Riccardo / Tchaikovsky – Tchaikovsky: Complete Symphonies CD

The context of the Fourth Symphony

In his late 30s, Tchaikovsky received a letter from Antonina Miliukhovna, a former student, which declared her love for him. Apparently thinking he could use a relationship with her to hide his homosexuality, he married her. Soon afterward, he found the relationship so traumatic that he attempted suicide.

At about the same time, be began a long-distance correspondence with another admirer of his music, Nadezhda von Meck. She offered him an annual allowance so he could become a full-time composer, on one condition. They would correspond only by letter and never meet.

Many commentators see the Fourth Symphony as Tchaikovsky’s reaction to the horror of his marriage, but that’s impossible. He had already described its program in a letter to Mme. von Meck before he met his future wife. He described its progress in other letters while he still thought the marriage would help him.

The program of the Fourth Symphony

Regarding the symphony’s form, Tchaikovsky wrote that he kept to the expected symphonic form “only as a large outline and the proper sequence of movements.” In other words, he had given up on trying to write a classical symphony. He described in some detail how he deviated from standard procedures in each movement.

First movement

You asked me whether there is a definite program to this symphony? Usually when this question is put to me about a symphonic work my answer is: none! . . . in our symphony there is a programme, i.e. it is possible to express in words what it is trying to say, and to you, and only to you, I am able and willing to explain the meaning both of the whole and of the separate movements. Of course, I can do this only in general terms.

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea:

Tchaikovsky fourth symphony fate theme

This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. It is an invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly.


By the seed, he meant the opening fanfare. It’s neither the main theme of the sonata form nor a simple introduction. It returns to interrupt the progress of the form. Tchaikovsky makes no attempt at a proper recapitulation. The passage he writes is much too short, and the theme begins in the wrong key, D minor instead of F minor.

As the movement progresses, a bleak and hopeless mood intensifies. A sweet, gentle daydream appears. Will it be possible to forget the gloom and experience happiness? No. the opening fanfare sounds to show that fate will not allow any haven from joyless reality.

After this gut-wrenching opening, the rest of the symphony can be nothing more than reflections on it.

Pletnev / Rno / Tchaikovsky – Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

The rest of the symphony

The second movement of the symphony expresses another aspect of sadness. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one’s toil, one sits alone with a book—but it falls from the hand.

Tchaikovsky goes on to describe how both pleasant and painful memories bring some respite from the wearisome present, but how sad that it’s all past.

“The third movement expresses no specific feeling,” but it recalls a variety of “strange, wild, and incoherent” images. Neither cheerful nor sad, they’re like the thoughts one has before falling asleep.

The finale gives some reason for hope: If you’re not happy, you can go out in society. Watch happy people. Notice their joy. But fate won’t allow you to forget your own misery entirely. All these happy people care nothing about you, according to the program. The fate theme that opens the first movement, the “seed of the whole symphony,” reminds us of that unpleasant reality.

Tchaikovsky’s conservatory training still shines through in his treatment of the folk song “In a field a little birch tree stood” in the finale. Listen to the folk song. If you’re familiar with the symphony, you’ll notice that Tchaikovsky added two beats of rest to the end of each phrase.

He took a tune in 2/4 with three-measure phrases, 12 measures in all, and transformed it into eight measures of 4/4 time. In other words, he took a Russian folk song and gave it a German metric structure. He even managed to turn it into a motivic theme.

Balakirev’s group had accused him of writing German symphonies with Russian themes. Comparison of the first three symphonies with their folk material would probably reveal many similar instances.

But the Fourth Symphony and the slightly earlier opera Eugene Onegin helped win his detractors over.

The Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s reputation

Russian dance Tchaikovsky 4th symphony

Russian dance / Klavdy Lebedev (1900)

After the premiere of the Fourth Symphony, writers, began to see parallels between the raw emotion of Tchaikovsky’s music and the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

For example,

With a hidden passion they both stop at moments of horror, total spiritual collapse, and finding acute sweetness in the cold trepidation of the heart before the abyss, they both force the reader to experience those feelings, too.

In 1880, Dostoyevsky gave a speech at the dedication of a monument to the poet Pushkin. In it he called attention to the European essence of Pushkin’s work and deemed it a call for Russian unity with the West. Russia, declared Dostoyevsky, should “become a brother to all men, unman, if you will.”

After this speech, disdain among the more rabid nationalists for Tchaikovsky’s alleged Germanness began to dissipate. The Fifth and Sixth symphonies have  enjoyed equal success. They likewise seem to deal with fate as the enemy of his happiness.

After his death, though, critics began to regard Tchaikovsky as a musical lightweight with an overpowering emotional presence. The emotion seemed excessive and his formal structures, as he always admitted, poorly executed.

His reputation has risen and fallen over the years and now appears to be more favorable than it was a generation or so ago.

Prominent Russians: Pyotr Tchaikovsky / Tatyana Klevantseva, Russiapedia
Symphony no. 4 / Tchaikovsky Research
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony: up close & personal / Dick Strawser, Thoughts on a Train. January 8, 2011
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony: part 2, “art & life” / Dick Strawser, Thoughts on a Train. January 9, 2011

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