Length: c. 44 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, and triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 5, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
While it could be argued that Tchaikovsky’s manic-depressive tendencies were already well-established by 1877, when most of his Fourth Symphony was written, this was the year when his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory, burdensome at best, became intolerable. And this was the year in which he was forced to confront the fact of his homosexuality, when an infatuated student of his at the Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova, threatened suicide if her affections were not reciprocated.
Tchaikovsky’s response to her entreaties proved a catastrophic error: He proposed marriage and was, of course, accepted. What ensued was for him (and one assumes for his bride) a nightmare that culminated in his own attempted suicide and subsequent flight to Switzerland, where he recovered sufficiently to continue work on the symphony, and then to Italy, where it was completed in January 1878. Antonina, by the way, outlived Tchaikovsky by 24 years, the last 20 in a mental institution.
The composer corresponded with his new-found patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, a successful businesswoman (by no means common in the Russia of her time – she invested wisely in what she foresaw as the coming railroad boom), immediately after the marriage and again after its de facto termination. On the latter occasion he wrote: “We cannot escape our fate, and there was something fatalistic about my meeting with this girl.”
Fate is, indeed, the theme of the Fourth Symphony, for which the composer supplied a program of such unrelieved self-revelatory gloominess that it might be taken as self-caricature by anyone not familiar with Tchaikovsky’s personality. That program, which he never intended for publication but which has become something akin to an autobiographical best-seller, is replaced here by an abbreviated version of the more succinct program note he provided for his pupil, the composer Sergei Taneyev:
“Of course my symphony has a program, but of a kind impossible to formulate in words... Was it not the purpose of the symphony as a musical form to express that for which there are no words, but which surges from the soul and demands expression? Basically, my symphony is patterned after Beethoven’s Fifth. Not Beethoven’s musical ideas, but his fundamental notion... The Beethoven Fifth has a program. There can be no doubt what he wishes to express. The same idea underlies my own symphony, and if you have not understood me, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that I am not a Beethoven, which I myself have never doubted. I will add only that there is not a single line in my symphony which I have not felt deeply, and which does not echo true and sincere emotions.”
And from that glorious, uninhibited finale it is difficult not to believe that the emotion he finally wished to express was one of jubilation, his demons having been exorcised, as if the composer had, at least momentarily, triumphed over his grim fate.
— Herbert Glass