The Music Plays On — Tchaikovsky Symphony №4

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Tchaikovsky, 1877

Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony №4 represents a complete break from the traditions and rules that he so assiduously followed while writing his first three symphonies. As is so often the case with artists, however, breaking the rules can often reveal an expression hitherto unrealized.

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Tchaikovsky and wife, Antonina, on honeymoon, 1877

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies, while excellent, are dutiful attempts at composing in a style that checked off all the requirements that a symphonic composer in Germany would strive to achieve: structural and thematic clarity with efficient motivic development. However, his desire to create a symphony that contained the extreme emotional content and narrative of a tone poem told through the lens of four movements would first flower in his fourth symphony. Tchaikovsky writes about the forms of Symphony №4,

What happened at this time in Tchaikovsky’s life that pushed him towards this exploration of expression? His marriage in 1877 was a farce and a disaster. They were together for only a matter of weeks and lived apart for the rest of Tchaikovsky’s life, never divorcing. Not long after his separation he began writing this symphony. The other was meeting Nadezhda von Meck, who became his patron, allowing him to write music without financial worry. He dedicated this symphony to her, calling von Meck his “best friend.” Von Meck requested that Tchaikovsky provide a program for the symphony and Tchaikovsky obliged. In his description of this brass fanfare that not only appears at the beginning of the symphony but also at the very end, he writes that it is,

The piece was very poorly received at its premiere in Moscow, February 22, 1878, but it received a slightly warmer response in St. Petersburg the following November. It’s U.S. premiere in 1890 didn’t fare any better. The reviewer in the New York Post wrote,

However, it’s British premiere in 1893, which was conducted by Tchaikovsky, was an unqualified success, with people enthusiastically applauding between each movement….something that I always love to share with our modern audiences.

The piece has since become one of the most often performed symphonies in the entire repertoire. Here are my favorite performances and recordings.

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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