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The all-pervading pathos and tempestuous emotions that drip from the first to the last note of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 result from a confluence of personal events and the composer’s subjective awareness of the power of fate in determining a person’s destiny. The multiple strains of this confluence began to merge in late 1876 when Tchaikovsky had his first contacts with Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who was much enamored of his music. They were never to meet, but the ensuing correspondence defined their relationship. The emotional depth of their correspondence, in which Tchaikovsky shared his most intimate creative and personal thoughts, was satisfying to both:  a safe, non-physical relationship.

Another strain was his unfortunate marriage to Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, who had sent him a written declaration of love in May 1877. She then sent him several letters after he had ignored the first, in one of which she threatened suicide if he refused to meet her. On June 1 they met; he explained he could not love her. At the time he was working on Eugene Onegin (simultaneously with the Symphony No. 4), and he was so affected by Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana that he reconsidered his own rejection of Antonina and proposed to her within a week. She accepted with Tchaikovsky’s caveat that the marriage would not be consummated. They were wed July 18. By late July, Tchaikovsky had fled in horror to Kiev.

These were the circumstances under which Tchaikovsky composed the Symphony No. 4. The unrequited passions of his life were given a program that fashions all this turmoil into this great symphony. He outlined this program in a letter to Madame von Meck, referring to the work as “our symphony.” Briefly stated, the program consists of:

First movement – “The introduction (brass and winds) is the nucleus of the entire symphony…. It is Fate, it is that inexorable power which hinders the impulse towards happiness…which hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles…. So our whole life is a hard reality and quickly passing dreams of happiness.”

Second movement – “How sad to think how much has been, so much gone…” (plaintive melody in the oboe). “Yet it is sweet to think of one’s youth.           ” (lilting theme introduced by clarinet and bassoon). Third movement – “Capricious arabesques flit through the fancy as if one had drunk wine…” (pizzicato strings). “Suddenly there arises the memory of a drunken peasant, a ribald song” (woodwinds).

Fourth movement – “Scarcely have you forgot yourself, when unwearying Fate announces its presence (return of introduction to first movement). Do you still say the world is steeped in grief? Nay – rejoice in the happiness of others, and it will still be possible for you to live. I can tell you no more, dear friend, about the symphony.”

— Steve Lacoste