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.

Music I Love: Dead Letters, by The Rasmus

Album: Dead Letters
Artist: The Rasmus
Year: 2003

Track Listing:

  1. In the Shadows
  2. Guilty
  3. First Day of My Life
  4. Still Standing
  5. In My Life
  6. Time to Burn
  7. Not Like the Other Girls
  8. The One I Love
  9. Back in the Picture
  10. Funeral Song

I discovered The Rasmus relatively late in life, having already lived through the angst of my teens and matured from adolescent depression into the full-blown mental illness of bipolar disorder, and I remember thinking to myself, damn – I wish I’d known about them when I was fifteen.

Despite getting their start in the mid-nineties, the Finnish rock group came to worldwide attention in 2003 with the release of their fifth album, Dead Letters. From a pop-rock beginning, Dead Letters takes a turn firmly into goth-rock territory, with dark and miserable lyrics reminiscent of their home-grown contemporaries, HIM.

Yet unlike HIM, whose music tends to drip melancholy and sadness, The Rasmus maintain a dark yet upbeat bounce throughout their work, whether on the syncopated beats of In the Shadows, the epic chorus of Guilty, or the metal-tinged riffs of First Day of My Life.

Above their previous – and some of their later – albums, though, the overall flow of Dead Letters is impeccable, with mid- to fast-paced songs taking over the first side, while the more mellow back half – with ballads like Not Like the Other Girls – leads into the raucous Back in the Picture, before petering out dramatically with Funeral Song.

This is an album that would have made a huge difference to me in my teen years, and even since then I’ve played it over a hundred times with relish, because its anthemic goth-pop tracks are everything I wanted to hear but didn’t know existed.

The Rasmus have continued to release excellent albums, from their excellent follow-up, Hide From the Sun to their U2-inspired eponymous release in 2012, but Dead Letters remains their defining album to this day, and will live on for me as an epitome of fun goth rock.

Music I Love: The Optimist, by Anathema

Album: The Optimist
Artist: Anathema
Year: 2017

Track Listing:

  1. 32.63n 117.14w
  2. Leaving It Behind
  3. Endless Ways
  4. The Optimist
  5. San Francisco
  6. Springfield
  7. Ghosts
  8. Can’t Let Go
  9. Close Your Eyes
  10. Wildfires
  11. Back to the Start

Anathema are an oddity of a band, and I love them for it. From their roots as a doom/death metal outfit in the early 1990s (in fact considered one of the “Peaceville Three” along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, founding the British doom scene at the time), they’ve evolved over the past two and half decades into something much more spiritual and emotive.

Their big turnaround came after a seven-year break between A Natural Disaster (2003) and We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010), when they more or less reinvented themselves – not in terms of sound, but in terms of spirit. Where songs from the former album drag the listener on a journey of panic and despair:

Shadows are forming take heed of the warnings
Creeping around at four in the morning
Lie to myself start a brand new beginning
But I’m losing myself in this fear of living

Pulled Under at 2000 Metres a Second – A Natural Disaster

We’re Here Because We’re Here presents an entirely different shift of perspective:

Needed time to clear my mind
Breathe the free air find some peace there
I used to keep my heart in jail
But the choice was love or fear of pain and
And I chose love

Everything – We’re Here Because We’re Here

This spiritual optimism is carried forward throughout their subsequent albums, Weather Systems and Distant Satellites, and persists on their latest release, The Optimist. The irony here is that The Optimist is a sort of loose concept album based on the cover art for their 2001 effort A Fine Day to Exit – arguably their darkest and most depressing release ever.

Opening with a prelude track (which includes snippets of previous Anathema songs) that sounds like someone dragging themselves back to a car after trying to drown themselves in the ocean, we move seamlessly into the first song, Leaving It Behind, opening with a patter of electronic drumbeats before a dark storm of semi-distorted guitar washes over everything.

Yet not all is so gloomy; tracks such as Endless Ways and the title track are gentler, with soothing piano and soaring melodies, harkening back to the early days of their reinvention with We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems.

Anathema have settled on a sound that works for them; a distinct blend of acoustic, electric and electronic that is at once familiar and yet instantly identifiable. If there is a criticism to this album compositionally it is that the band relies heavily on ostinato, with endlessly repeating refrains over which the lyrics are sung in duet by both Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, alternating between Cavanagh’s angsty vocals and Douglas’ soulful melodies.

It’s hard for me to say this is my favorite Anathema album; to me, their best work remains in the past, when they were dark and depressing and matched my mood so well. That being said, this is the sound of a band at their peak maturity, knowing what works for them and running with it. Of their four “new” albums, The Optimist stands out head and shoulders above the others, and for good reason: it truly is an exemplary vision of spiritual indie rock at its best.