It begins with one of the most powerful, bold, and memorable statements in all of symphonic music. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor opens with a blazing fanfare, first heard as a piercingly metallic proclamation in the horns and then augmented by trombones and soaring trumpets. Regarding this opening, Tchaikovsky wrote,
The introduction is the seed of the whole Symphony: This is fate: 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.
This “fate” motive haunts the first movement. It shows up as an ominous, inescapable power, emerging when we least expect it, countering moments of triumph and joy and continuously pulling us back. It changes shape, but never goes away. For example, listen to the way the descending scale in the opening later transforms into cries of anguish in the woodwinds and horns. As the opening subsides into the shadows, the “fate” motive dissolves into a ghostly two-note strand in the clarinet and bassoon. These two lonely pitches hang, precariously, in midair and then form the first two notes of a new “dream” motive in the strings.
Tchaikovsky’s music is filled with irregular, off-balance rhythms which play tricks on our perception of strong and weak beats. The restless first theme is a good example. Tchaikovsky provided the marking, “In the tempo of a waltz.” But this isn’t a waltz. It’s too irregular, even though it’s infused with the same lighter-than-air upward sweep we might associate with triple meter or Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. Throughout this section, pay attention to the interjections in the lower strings and the way they influence our perception of the rhythm. Listen to this passage and see if you can find the downbeat. Or try to tap your toes to this passage in the ecstatic climax of the development section.
A few seconds later, we reach the recapitulation- usually the moment where we feel as if we’re “back home.” But in Tchaikovsky’s recap, the dreamy first theme suddenly rises up like an enormous, invincible monster, the trombones invoking something darkly supernatural.
The second movement begins with a lamenting melody in the oboe set against a bleak backdrop of string pizzicati. Tchaikovsky wrote that this oboe theme “suggests a whole procession of memories… it is at once sad and somehow sweet to lose ourselves in the past.” When this theme returns, listen to the way its rhythmic emphasis gets shifted by the pizzicato and the woodwind’s interjections. The movement’s marking, Andantino in modo di canzona, is a veiled reference to the past. (Canzonas originated in the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy as instrumental adaptations of French and Flemish songs). As with the first movement, there are hints of aspiration and euphoria, but they quickly disintegrate. The final moments enter into a kind of searching harmonic free fall and then fade into the gloomy depths of winter.
The third movement takes us to a vibrant new sound world with the entire string section playing pizzicato. The trio section is filled with humor, frivolity, and almost cartoonish characters: First, we hear a capricious melody in the woodwinds. Then, a stiff caricature of a march emerges in the brass. One of my favorite moments comes when all of these collide amid a sparkling piccolo solo.
The Finale (Allegro con fuoco) is a euphoric celebration. The musical fireworks include cymbal crashes and joyful, swirling lines in the strings and woodwinds. The second theme quotes the Russian folksong, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree.” You’ll hear this melody repeated in a series of variations in which the musical backdrop changes, continuously- a technique often employed by Russian composers. Just as the final movement seems to be propelling towards its ultimate climactic resolution, the “fate” motive from the first movement rears its head. For a moment, we find ourselves back at the beginning, complete with those terrifying silences. “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand,” wrote W.H. Auden. Amid the triumph and celebration of the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, the “powers” have their way.
Five Great Recordings
- Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra iTunes (This 1985 recording is featured above).
- Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
- Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic -In this clip from the Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein offers insights into the unique atmosphere of Tchaikovsky’s music.
- Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic -There’s an amazing “edge of your seat” quality about this performance of the final movement as Gergiev perilously pushes the orchestra to the front of the beat.
- Gerard Schwarz and the All-Star Orchestra