Music I Love: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, by Tchaikovsky

Work: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Composer: Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky
Year: 1878

Movements:

  1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima
  2. Andantino in modo di canzona
  3. Scherzo (Allegro)
  4. Finale (Allegro con fuoco)

I’ve written before about my love for Tchaikovsky’s music – in particular the emotional drama of his sixth symphony, the Pathétique. Growing up on a musical diet of classical- and romantic-era compositions, Tchaikovsky represented to me the pinnacle of angst and turmoil, with his grandiose themes and bombastic orchestrations. Even after I discovered the high-octane energy and gothic tragedy of rock and metal, Tchaikovsky remained a staple of my musical journey, and one I frequently return to when I’m feeling emotional, dramatic, or simply in need of something more refined and cultured than blast beats.

In fairness, I could write lovingly about almost any of Tchaikovsky’s compositions – from the pomp and flair of his first piano concerto to the subtle tensions of his Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture – but one work that stands out to me, for its thematic inventiveness, intricate orchestration and Mozartian way in which the material is combined in the finale, is his fourth symphony in F minor. From the militaristic brass of the introduction to the dizzying scales of the finale, this is one of Tchaikovsky’s most musically memorable works, along with the Nutcracker suite and the 1812 Overture.

It’s also one of his leanest symphonies – even the first movement, at nearly twenty minutes long, doesn’t outstay its welcome. The material is presented, developed and recapitulated in equal measure, with each theme weaving seamlessly into the next, and yet distinct and separable all the same. As is usual for Tchaikovsky, he leans heavily on the brass instruments to carry the weight of the music, but the dancing woodwinds and dashing string scales bring a levity to what might otherwise have been overly heavy material.

The second movement, a traditional slow movement, is lyrical and sparse, a delicate balance of strings and woodwinds presenting new material whilst harkening back to the quieter moments of the first movement. The scherzo is utterly unique, played almost entirely on pizzicato strings and scattered flutes and oboes, with a short melodious middle and a recap that builds to a false crescendo before fading out into the blasting opening of the finale.

And what a finale! Crashing cymbals and screaming strings back percussive, staccato horns and trumpets at full blast in F Major – a joyous, bombastic retelling of the first movement’s dark and ominous opening notes. Furious flurries of string and woodwind scales move things forward with relentless drive, until a rising passage of frantic trumpets leads back to the original opening theme from the first movement – an unexpected and brilliant connection of the start and end of the symphony. And when the finale’s main theme triumphantly returns with double-time brass chords to close out the movement and the work, it’s impossible not to be flush with excitement and sheer enthusiasm for the breakneck pace of the music.

Tchaikovsky undoubtedly suffered from a great deal in his lifetime, and some of his works indicate a strong possibility of bipolar disorder; if so, this certainly represents a period of manic joy – a kind of feverish ecstasy, a blinding brightness that no despair can overcome, and an enduring sense that anything, any wrong, can be overcome with enough positivity.

I listen to this symphony when I need to feel energy; I listen to it when I need to feel calm. I listen to it when I need a reminder that not all in the world is doom and gloom – and, simply, when I want a break from the turn-it-to-eleven mentality of heavy metal.

This is one of Tchaikovsky’s underrated masterpieces, and I highly encourage you to seek out a good recording today.

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