Symphony Study No. 39 | Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4

by Glenn on March 13, 2016

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Opus 36
First performance: Moscow | 22 February 1878

With Mozart’s late symphonies now newly familiar to me, I thought I would turn to something that was already familiar, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Opus 36, as I continue my journey through Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony.

Tchaikovsky was my gateway drug for classical music. And Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were my dealers. I have this memory from my teenage years of a cassette tape given to me by a friend that had Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on one side and the Serenade for Strings on the other. I listened to it again and again and am so stamped by the latter performance, that it’s difficult to hear it played by anyone else—“That’s not how it’s done.” Oh, those strings.

My memory is blurred because the Ormandy/Philadelphia/Tchaikovsky connection would grow to include the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, Marche Slave, Capriccio Italien, and the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, and I can’t actually remember for sure what was paired with what. (In my adolescence, the world of the cassette tape was giving way to the compact disc and I enjoyed many of these performances first on tape—with plenty of hiss, in spite of Dolby noise reduction—and then, in different combinations of works, on CD.)

It was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that really hooked me, though. I remember watching a performance on television and being mesmerized. Let’s be honest (and no disrespect intended—it was the late 70’s and Star Wars was a thing for the first time), Ormandy looks a bit like Yoda (well, not the ears or the skin tone), so how can you not have warm feelings about him?

Ormandy Yoda.001

And then Itzhaak Perlman (who I had never heard of) comes out on stage on crutches and your first thought is one of sympathy. But then he plays. I was spellbound by the music and the performance. I’ve had the audio recording of this performance for years,

but was happy to discover that this particular television program was released on video some years ago. (My only complaint about the video is that the audio seems a little more harsh than the CD.)

The magic of Tchaikovsky is that you don’t need to know anything about Tchaikovsky to access his music. It’s so emotional that you just sort of get it. (Or you’re turned off by it because it’s so emotional.)

With Symphony No. 4, you don’t need to know that the opening is a “fate” theme, to understand that it’s pretty intense. Tchaikovsky obviously has a flair for the dramatic. There is no dispassionate, “Let’s play it cool,” with him. It’s all fire and ice. More of the ideas behind the music later.

Tchaikovsky does a number of other things to make his music accessible:

1. He writes great tunes. Especially in the Fourth Symphony, that little tune in the second movement that begins with the oboe is so lyrical and haunting.

2. There’s also a mysterious quality to his tunes. He is other-worldly, though not in the spiritual or “far-out” sense. He is writing in the German symphonic tradition begun by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, but his tunes come from another place—and not just Russia. There is an Italian lyricism that can be heard as well. (Obviously, someone from Russia will find less of “another world” in Tchaikovsky’s melodies, or perhaps they will find his music other worldly in the sense of not being from Russia, particularly, because of the German-Italian connections.) One of Tchaikovsky’s gifts is creating tunes that sound like folk music even when they are original.

3. There are wonderful colors in his orchestrations. Obviously, since the time of Mozart the orchestra has gotten bigger and included more instruments and those instruments have gotten better. Tchaikovsky exploits this to full effect. This Fourth Symphony is phenomenally colorful with all sorts of instrumental solos and pairings. The third movement where the strings play pizzicato exclusively is magical.

4. Tchaikovsky’s rhythms are exciting. On the one hand they are primal, with toe-tapping and cymbal-crashing pulses, and on the other hand they are sophisticated and modern with highly syncopated passages.

My affection for Tchaikovsky’s music has cooled somewhat over the years replaced by a near-obsession with Gustav Mahler, but I felt so much nostalgia as I listened to this powerful symphony.

I turned to a performance on video I found on a used shelf some time ago of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony as part of the “Keeping Score” program on PBS. I enjoyed this, although I will say that the production quality of this program has improved dramatically in the years since this 2004 episode. (For one thing, moving from 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratio.) There are two elements to these shows—a documentary about the featured work and a concert performance of that work.

The first Keeping Score program I watched was about Gustav Mahler (from 2011) and it’s clear that Thomas (hereafter, MTT) went to some incredible lengths (including travel to Mahler’s homeland) to tell a compelling story.

With Tchaikovsky, the focus is more local, on the music-making process and, in this case, on the group of people from the San Francisco area who come together to make music at a very high level. Rehearsal and performance sequences are interleaved with vignettes featuring some of the orchestra’s principal players. If the production values and story-telling characteristic of the documentary weren’t as good as with Mahler, happily, though, the audio and visual aspects of the performance of Tchaikovsky’s symphony were excellent.

The best part of the documentary is the behind-the-scenes view of the musical operation of a symphony orchestra. A couple of things I would never have guessed happened:

1. Weeks before the performance, MTT, the conductor and artistic director of the San Franciso Symphony, went through his score and marked things, which wasn’t surprising. But then his score went to the orchestra’s librarian who marked the individual parts based on his notations in his score. It’s a time-saver at rehearsal. I can’t imagine this always happens—for example, I can’t imagine every guest conductor sends a score in advance for parts to be marked. Then again this is a world that is foreign to me.

2. MTT also met with a couple of the principals, the concertmaster to work out bowings and the principal oboe to work out how to make that key solo in the second movement feel both fresh and alive but also faithful to Tchaikovsky’s instruction that the melody be played “simply” and “gracefully.”

My assumption was that everything was worked out in rehearsal. MTT appears to have a good working relationship with his players. He is clearly willing and able to drill down into the details, but he is also a big picture conductor, as we get a shot of him setting the stage to play this “old war horse,” asking the orchestra to approach it with “lyrical” and “Italian” sensibilities  rather than to “beat the hell out of it.”

You also get to see the disciplines of a number of the players, for example William Bennett, the former mentioned principal oboist, as he makes reeds, and David Herbert, the tympani player, as he prepares imported natural skins for performance. Like athletes and actors, with musicians there’s a lot you don’t see that has to happen before they take the stage.

Finally, you get MTT’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which is about “primal moods” and “big stories,” about “life as it actually is.” There are “huge themes” of “drama, pathos, elation, and despair.”

MTT compares the Symphony No. 4 to a Book of Job or King Lear—it’s the story of fate: “Why do things happen as they do?”

First movement

MTT considers the first movement the most important—nearly as long as the next three movements combined. I liked his characterization of the theme that follows the opening fanfare as “a waltz with a sigh.” It’s asking the question “Why am I so sad and why am I so alone?”

Thomas says the end of the first movement is “total burnout” emotionally, psychologically, and acoustically and yet the symphony isn’t over.

Second movement

With this movement we turn from “frenzied drama” to a “pastoral Russian village scene.” This is a place for “refuge and healing.” Tchaikovsky is a “deep feeler.” This is a melancholy little tune that Tchaikovsky intended to capture “bittersweet emotions that come up when reflecting on the past.”

MTT offers the insight that Tchaikovsky writes for the winds as singers in an opera.

Third movement

MTT says Tchaikovsky explores “playfulness” in this movement. It’s marked “Scherzo (Pizzicato Ostinato). (A joke. Plucked strings primarily going on continously.) This movement is a delight and MTT notes “It needs precision, elegance, and endurance to make this work.” Had anyone ever done this before Tchaikovsky? This feels sort of ground-breaking.

Fourth movement

MTT describes this as an “out of control march,” which is about right. I can’t think about this movement without flashing back to my time living in Southern California. One night, the deejays at K-USC, the great classical station, lost their minds. As I recall it started with playing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. And because that last movement is so powerful, the deejay decided to play another version of the last movement of the Fourth Symphony. Pretty soon there were more deejays, and they spent the entire night playing different performances of that final movement.  They’d play a particular performance, discuss its merits briefly, and then play another one. I had never heard anything like this and never have since. It is pretty exciting music. Steinberg notes, “This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.”

Tchaikovsky’s program notes about this movement say (source here),

“If you find no cause for joy within yourself, look for it in others. Go to the people…..A picture of festive popular rejoicing. Scarcely has one forgotten oneself and been carried away at the sight of someone else’s pleasure than indefatigable Fate returns again and reminds you of yourself. But others pay no heed to you. They do not even turn round, they do not glance at you and do not notice how lonely and gloomy you are. Oh, how gay they are! How lucky they are that all their feelings are simple and spontaneous. Reproach yourself and do not say that all the world is sad. Simple but strong joys do exist. Rejoice in other’s rejoicing. To live is still bearable.” (emphasis added)

The idea for having elements from earlier portions of a symphony return at the end started with Beethoven. With Tchaikovsky, the fanfare doesn’t quite bookend the symphony (it does on the front half), but it’s impressive how the happy and frantic fourth movement revelings transform back into the “fate” theme.

*  *  *

As far as the actual performance by MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, the playing is phenomenal. For purposes of comparison, I went back and listened to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nothing wrong with either performance, but they are stunningly different.

Mainly, production quality has changed, which (and I think there is a chicken and an egg scenario here in that it’s hard to say which came first) has changed performance quality. It’s not that the San Francisco Symphony plays better, but perhaps more cautiously as there are absolutely no rough edges. SFS Media, which records the San Franciso Symphony, does a phenomenal job.

I would say that Ormandy has more of his heart on his sleeve, but Thomas has a more perfect presentation of the music, at which point you have to choose what you care about. I thoroughly enjoy the Ormandy performance for its sense of rawness and emotional power.

I think I’m beginning to understand how to listen past the recording limitations of the time to the performance underneath. The difference between analog and digital recordings feels a little bit like the difference between old school black and white photography (the real kind—à la Ansel Adams) and modern color digital photography. The color pictures are better, but are they better pictures?

*  *  *

I mentioned before that I’m not sure it helps to understand Tchaikovsky to understand this music. There are three essential facts about Tchaikovsky:

1. He was a homosexual in an environment—family, society, and country—where there was tremendous pressure not to be one.

2. “Unease” (to use Steinberg’s word) over fact number one led to a short, disastrous marriage to Antonina Ivanova Milyukova, a former student. (The story is told simply here and more extensively here.)

3. Prior to his marriage he found an admirer in Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, a wealthy widow who was obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s music. She subsidized him for more than a decade so that he lived comfortably. They maintained an intimate and “voluminous” correspondence, but they never met (von Meck’s wishes).

Following the break-up of the marriage, Tchaikovsky was a mess. His “relationship” with von Meck helped him pull through. As he worked on the Symphony No. 4 (begun before the marriage),  he wrote to von Meck saying, “Our symphony progresses.” Ultimately, he dedicated it to her.

The opening fanfare, he told von Meck, relates to

“Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

It feels a bit like Tchaikovsky is looking for something (or someone?) to blame for a sad, if not predictable, outcome. After the break-up of the marriage, he wrote to von Meck (source here),

“We cannot escape our fate, and there was something fatalistic about my meeting with this girl.”

I guess I don’t like (although haven’t really considered) this idea of Fate (with the capital). I’m more in line with Shakespeare’s Hamlet who says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”

I believe in the supernatural, but I believe we make and live our choices.

One thing I can say, this is powerfully emotional music. To a fellow composer and friend, Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky wrote regarding this symphony,

“Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?”

Hard to imagine Mozart saying that about one of his symphonies. He seemed more detached, separate from his art. I think I remember him expressing the hope regarding one of his symphonies that it would delight listeners. This seems to be a sea change: From music to enchant and entertain to music to express myself.

*  *  *


As I was writing, I did a search to look up the name, William Bennett, the then principal oboist for the San Francisco Symphony, who is featured on this edition of Keeping Score. I was saddened to learn that he died in 2013 while performing Strauss’ Oboe Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony.

In the Keeping Score documentary, Bennett describes Tchaikovsky as a “tremendously conflicted and complex emotional person.” And then he quickly adds, “And we all are.” Tchaikovsky’s detractors would say that his music is too emotional. Is there any music emotional enough to express the anguish of a too-young death of an incredibly talented musician in such a tragic way? There is something just so poignant, now, about that oboe solo in the second movement. R.I.P.