Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Notes by Anthony Princiotti

"To pretend all of one's life is the greatest of torments."

- Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, August 9, 1877

Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, and his struggle coming to terms with it, was the central issue of the composer's interior life. He felt tainted in the deepest psychological sense, and he greatly feared that public exposure of his sexual orientation would result in his complete rejection by society. In 1876, the thirty-six year-old Tchaikovsky embarked on a course of action that would reverberate throughout the rest of his life and greatly influence the musical and emotional content of his Fourth Symphony: it not a terrible thought that people who love me can sometimes be ashamed of me! But, you know, this has happened a hundred times, and it will happen a hundred times more. In a word, I should like by marriage, or by a generally open liaison with a woman, to stop the mouths of various contemptible creatures whose opinion I don't in the least respect, but who could cause distress to people close to me...(letter to his Modest; October 1876)

An opportunity to act upon this plan presented itself within a year. A former student at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova, sent two letters to Tchaikovsky in May of 1877, declaring that she had loved him from afar for five years. They met for the first time on June 1st; within forty-eight hours Tchaikovsky and Milyukova were engaged. The absurdity of the situation was palpable. Not only did Tchaikovsky not feel any physical attraction toward his fiancé, he was contemptuous of her intellect and interests. He clearly told Milyukova that she could never expect him to love her, and that he needed a high degree of solitude not only for his work, but for his sense of well-being, conditions to which she readily agreed. The engagement was kept secret until shortly before the marriage on July 18th.

The marriage ceremony itself was a torment for Tchaikovsky, and after only a week of marriage, he found himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The crisis was relieved somewhat by a working vacation traveling through Russia, during which his wife stayed behind in Moscow to set up their apartment. He returned to the city at the end of September to resume his duties at the Conservatory. To Tchaikovsky's colleagues, all appeared to be well; however, the oppressiveness of his personal situation became so great that he walked into the cold waters of the Moscow River in a half-hearted attempt at suicide. It was now clear that continuing the marriage was an impossibility. He prevailed upon a friend to send a false telegram stating that his presence was required in St. Petersburg on a professional matter. When Tchaikovsky arrived in St. Petersburg on October 7th, he was a shattered man. A psychiatrist examined him and declared that he needed total rest and a change of scenery; he also said that Tchaikovsky should never see his wife again. Tchaikovsky's mortification was now total. He had discovered that it was impossible for him to achieve a lifestyle that would be socially acceptable. Worse yet, through the failure of his marriage this impossibility was now apparent for all to see.

Much of Tchaikovsky's agony found its way into his Fourth Symphony. In a letter written to his patroness and confidante Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky spelled out in detail (complete with written musical examples) the motivating concepts behind the work. While some of the images in Tschaikovsky's "program" may seem overblown, they confirm the symphony's essentially autobiographical content:

"In our symphony there is a programme - i.e. it is possible to express in words what I am trying to say, and to you, and only to you, I am willing and able to explain the meaning both of the whole and of the separate movements.

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony (Tchaikovsky writes out the motto-theme which is heard at the work's outset). This is fate, that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above your head like a sword of Damocles and constantly poisons your soul. It is invincible, and you will never overcome it. Is it not better to turn yourself away from reality and submerge yourself in day-dreams? (Tchaikovsky quotes the movement's second theme, a melancholy waltz) O joy! There appears, at the very least, a sweet and gentle day-dream. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons you away (he quotes another waltz-tune, this one in a brighter key): How good this is! How distant now sounds the obsessive first theme of the Allegro. Day-dreams little by little envelop the soul completely. Everything gloomy, joyless is forgotten. No, these were day-dreams, and fate wakes you from them. Thus all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness...No haven exists...Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.

The symphony's second movement expresses another phase of depression. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from your labor, you are sitting alone, you take a book - but it falls from your hand. There comes a whole host of memories. It is both sad that so much is now past and gone, yet pleasant to recall your youth. You both regret the past, yet do not wish to begin your life again. Life has wearied you. You remember much. There were happy moments when the young blood boiled, and life was satisfying. There were also painful moments, irreparable losses. It's both sad, yet somehow sweet to immerse yourself in the past.

The third movement expresses no definite feeling. It is made up of capricious arabesques, of the elusive images which rush past in the imagination when you have drunk a little wine and experience the first stage of intoxication. You think of nothing; you give free rein to your imagination - and for some reason it begins to paint strange pictures. Among these you suddenly recalled a picture of drunken peasants and a street song...Next, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes. These completely disjointed images rush past in your head when you have fallen asleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are strange, wild and disjointed.

The fourth movement. If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, look at others. Go among the people. Observe how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. A picture of festive merriment of the people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of others' joys, than irresponsible fate again appears and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you. They have not even turned around, they have not glanced at you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves, how happy they are that all their feelings are simple and direct! You have only yourself to blame; do not say that everything in this world is sad. Rejoice in others' rejoicing. To live is still possible!"

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Nadezhda von Meck. It was premiered in Moscow on February 22nd, 1878.