The Colburn Orchestra Plays Tchaikovsky - 'Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36'

For the full performance, which includes Martin & Tchaikovsky, click here.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
"Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36" (1877-1878)

Arianna Smith

The Fourth Symphony of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky bears perhaps the greatest emotional context of any of his works. Though without a subtitle - 5 of his 7 symphonic masterpieces have such a title - the Fourth Symphony contains some of Tchaikovsky's most expressive and profound material.

At the time of the work's completion, Tchaikovsky had endured a crisis beyond imagination. As a homosexual in 19th-century Russia, he tried ceaselessly to prove his heterosexuality to the music loving public and his own family. After familial tensions rose as a result of his bachelor status, Tchaikovsky felt the need to marry for political and societal approval. The easiest and most convenient choice was a sex-craved former composition student named Antonina Milyukova. She also proved herself a crazed "Tchaikophile" by sending numerous letters to Tchaikovsky declaring her undying love and unbridled passion. She offered her hand in marriage so frequently and with such vehemence that Tchaikovsky could not refuse. The marriage (1877) lasted a mere three weeks and caused the composer intense emotional harm to the point of an attempted suicide in the Moscow River - Robert Schumann's attempt in the Rhine was 23 years prior.

A much more substantial and beneficial relationship was developing at this time in the composer's life - that of Madame Nadezhda von Meck. This affiliation began as purely donor/ composer, for Madame von Meck had the sole desire to ease Tchaikovsky's monetary worries and inspire compositional creativity. A great music lover, especially Russian music, von Meck did not wish to meet the composer, just retain occasional postal correspondence to track the development of his works. This casual correspondence transformed into a deep emotional exchange between the two, some musicologists even refer to their relationship as the closest to true love Tchaikovsky ever came.

Though they never did meet, the Fourth Symphony is dedicated to von Meck and bears the inscription "To my best friend." He even referred to the work as having developed from this "artistic" partnership.

The Fourth Symphony is in four movements and is related both thematically and harmonically to the Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. Tchaikovsky himself drew this most fateful parallel (two decades later, Gustav Mahler would also draw inspiration from Beethoven's work in his own Fifth Symphony). First is the fate motive: Tchaikovsky opens the symphony with his version of "fate." In lieu of Beethoven's clarinets and strings, he uses horns and bassoons (Mahler uses a solo trumpet). All three works employ a minor mode first movement, and a major mode last movement (the tonic note remains the same except in the Mahler): Beethoven - C minor to C Major, Tchaikovsky - F minor to F Major, Mahler - C# minor to D Major.

The first movement is marked Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima - Moderato assai, quasi Andante - Allegro vivo. It opens with the aforementioned "fate" motive, which travels from the horns to the trumpets. This motive serves as the introductory section as well as to separate the grand sections of this large-scale opening. The first theme is introduced by the violins and is indicated as a waltz in 9/8 time (three measures of traditional waltz stress for every one bar of 9/8). As this thememakes its way to the woodwinds, the strings supply a marcato accompaniment that will later serve as a prominent rhythmic motive when the again theme rears its angry head. The second theme is introduced by the clarinet and provides the snickering sarcasm for the movement. Descending scale interjections by the flutes, bassoons, and second clarinet (oboes join later on) follow each statement of the theme - each instrument with its unique comment on the clarinet's material. The violins push the melody into a slightly friendlier atmosphere as the timpani accompanies them. The fi rst theme reappears in this context. This writer's favorite moment is the triumphal four-horn unison statement in this section.

The second movement, marked Andantino in modo di canzona, opens with a long, gorgeous melody stated by the solo oboe. Tchaikovsky marks semplice ma grazioso for the oboe, yet when the theme travels to the cello section, he omits the semplice and just indicates grazioso. A striking motive of three pulsing chords appears throughout the movement and has been associated with sighs. The second theme is almost hopeful and in the major mode. When the first theme returns it is played by the first violins and accompanied by descending lines in the woodwind section quite similar to those of the first movement. The first theme has become a popular melody and, as such, has taken many forms including a jazz version by former Blood, Sweat & Tears trumpeter Lew Soloff.

The third movement is surprising in its jovial, uplifting character (marked Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato- Allegro). It begins with the string sections (bows on the floor, music stands, and laps) plucking away as if preparing 50 turkeys for thanksgiving dinner. The trio then begins with a held note in the oboe as if signaling the other wind players to finally pick up their instruments. The trio is just as entertaining as the "turkey plucking" but more demanding of the instrumentalists -- especially the poor piccolo player. He/she has to sit during the fi rst two movements only to enter with the highest statement of the trio's most prominent theme. Just a few bars later the same player has to tackle one of the most demanding piccolo fl ourishes in the repertoire (lasting a mere 3 seconds that is repeated once). The brass section provides a March-like theme throughout the trio that eventually makes a turn back to the pizzicato of the opening.

The entire percussion section (excluding timpani) sits out for the first three movements anxiously awaiting the finale, only to strike the eardrums of the audience throughout the exciting and impetuous final movement marked Allegro con fuoco. The movement opens with the whole orchestral string and woodwind complements playing a difficult unison descending line only to abruptly halt before starting right up again. The fate theme returns in this movement (stated by the trumpets) added to by a fortississimo cymbal crash marked "solo." The Colburn School percussionists have elected to use three players for maximum effect. The coda follows. This finale contains a fantastic cymbalpart of great difficulty and importance to the colorful fabric. It can be most convincingly compared to the analogous part in Tchaikovsky's tone poem/overture Romeo et Juliette. The symphony concludes as most works of Tchaikovsky's do -- with energy, panache, and emotional triumph.

~By Julian Schwarz
Julian is a cellist and a sophomore in the Bachelor of Music program at the Colburn Conservatory.

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