Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony starts with a clashing fanfare—an idea the composer connected with the famous opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, widely understood to represent fate. But their conceptions of fate are wildly different: For Beethoven, the shock of the opening idea, the knock at the door, generates the rest of the movement and propels the entire symphony. But for Tchaikovsky, fate is not a creative force, instead it’s an intrusion that thwarts peace and shatters beauty.
He wrote as much to Nadezhda von Meck, his patron and confidante, and the secret dedicatee of the Fourth Symphony:
This is Fate, the force of destiny, which ever prevents our pursuit of happiness from reaching its goal, which jealously stands watch lest our peace and well-being be full and cloudless, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads and constantly, ceaselessly poisons our souls.
He goes on, providing her with a description of the entire piece in such terms. Whether this program guided his composition from inception, or whether it was an after-the-fact translation of music into words for the benefit of a patron, is unknown.
But Tchaikovsky certainly had reason to think of fate in such a way, especially as 1877 marked a major crisis in his life. He had just left his new wife, Antonina Milyukova, whom he had married earlier that same year. Tchaikovsky, who biographers generally believe was gay, thought they were entering a marriage of convenience—she, apparently, didn’t know or understand this. He was still recuperating from the ordeal of their separation when he wrote most of the Fourth Symphony.
Craft vs. Nationalism
We can also look at the symphony through an aesthetic and political lens: Though Tchaikovsky drew a comparison to Beethoven, he wasn’t fully an admirer, and was even less an admirer of Johannes Brahms, who was Beethoven’s heir and the leading symphonist of the day. Tchaikovsky criticized what he heard as overly analytical, tightly-constructed Germanic music. But at the same time, he stood apart from his fellow Russian composers as more educated, more professional, and more Western.
Most of his compatriots were musically self-educated and held day jobs (Borodin notably as a chemist, others as civil servants and military officers). Even Tchaikovsky initially worked as a civil servant for three years before the Saint Petersburg Conservatory opened its doors in 1862. It was the first place a Russian could receive a formal music education, taught in Russian, without leaving the country. Tchaikovsky enrolled and graduated with the first class.
In the following years, he struggled with the symphonic form, trying to avoid the blunt, exotic Russianness that brought Glinka and Borodin both cachet and derision in Western Europe, while also trying to downplay the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship his conservatory teachers had obsessed over.
The Fourth Symphony is a stunning realization of this middle path. Tchaikovsky found he could place unrelated musical ideas next to each other and let the latent drama of their juxtapositions emerge. It’s a technique that also served him well in opera and ballet, where music delineates characters as they interact and come into conflict.
In the symphony, nothing is quite so literal: Heroes and fairytale characters are stripped down to anonymous musical ideas, then cast into four movements which roughly hit the expected markers of the symphonic form. But what unfolds in-between is wholly original and unexpected.
After the fateful fanfare recedes, the main theme is a waltz—an unusual choice for the first movement of a symphony. From there comes a succession of escapist melodies, which Tchaikovsky called “sweet tender dreams.” But fate is never far away, returning violently three more times, shattering any illusion of peace.
The slow movement, Andantino in modo di canzona (in the manner of a song), has a mournful theme, first presented in the oboe, then cellos, then elaborated upon, and finally ending with the bassoon.
The Scherzo explodes the orchestra into its constituent factions. First, the plucked strings scurry along. Then, the strings drop out and the woodwinds play a rustic tune. Next comes the brass (with some clarinet and piccolo for color), and then the plucked strings return. While traditional orchestration focused on blending and subtle layering, Tchaikovsky found bold effects in the opposite approach.
The finale begins from a point of triumph, then descends back into tumult. It is no surprise that fate makes a return, and the result—whether transcendent or destructive—is something listeners can ponder. Tchaikovsky, in a nod to his more nationalistic colleagues, quotes a Russian folksong, which could provide a subtext: “I will take a walk in the forest, I will cut down the birch tree.” But from that tree, the singer makes a balalaika.