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


  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: “Symphony no. 5”, Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)

bee5_1_mThis is one my favorite works of music. Before you decry it as an obvious choice, let me point out that there is a lot more to this symphony than meets the ear. Aside from the obvious popularity of the opening movement, there is a lot to be enjoyed in the remaining three, including some musical moments that are, essentially, groundbreaking.

Nearly everything Ludwig van Beethoven composed is simply genius (I say nearly – I’m not all that fond of the cello sonatas), but in his early works he tends to stick to the tried and true forms of the classical era. He deviates, pushes the boundaries, but his first four symphonies, the multitude of piano sonatas, and even the violin concerto, still retain obvious and strong connections to the classical stoicism of the past.

So what makes the fifth symphony, written in 1808, so different? The first movement is in a nearly textbook sonata form; the second is a kind of theme and variation; the third a straight scherzo; the fourth a massive but unmistakable rondo. Structurally, there is little here to suggest anything that would upheave the musical dogma for everything to come.

Yet it’s usually accepted that Beethoven forms the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras; Mozart and Haydn before, Schubert and Mendelssohn after. But at what point can we say that Beethoven was a Romantic composer, and not a Classical one?

Often it’s considered the ninth symphony, with its sprawling themes and instrumental excess, but for me I feel like it traces back to his fifth symphony. The main reason for this is not because of his structure, or indeed his themes, which are (the second movement aside) hardly lyrical. It is because of the emotional drama that he infuses every single note of the symphony with. From the first notes, starting on a weak beat (beat 2.5 out of 4, as it were) yet played with immense force, to the intense finale with its pounding C major arpeggio, the symphony drags the listener into a maelstrom of violent and tempestuous musical material, and doesn’t let go until the clamorous final notes, a single enormous C major chord stretched to infinity.

Though emotion was not anathema to Baroque and Classical composers, it was handled with restraint. Even Mozart’s final symphony, one of the most ingenious and complex pieces he ever wrote, doesn’t linger on any one theme, and moves on throughout its movements with poise and dignity, but never with untamed, rampant joy. Beethoven’s fifth symphony, however, oozes emotion, a roller coaster of joy and fury, of exuberance and despair.

It is this, more than its structure, that t0 me marks the turning point between the Classical and the Romantic eras. Even the most sophisticated Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mahler still made use of classic sonata, binary, minuet and trio, and rondo forms; it was emotion that these composers sought to infuse their music with. To me, this is the first time a composer did so on such a grand scale.

Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

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Tales of Despair: The Color and the Key of Despair

What mood do you see?

There are certain things that ring so of despair that they are instantly recognizable. In life there are such things — death, sadness, old men crying. In art also, there exists an equal dogma of darkness (even the term darkness serves as such an example). The darker of colors — black, blue, crimson — these are colors of despair. They are the colors of things that are frightening — the black of night, the unfathomable depths of the ocean, the terrifying heat of flame, and the letting of blood.

These colors form a great part of our perception of misery and sadness. Winston Churchill famously referred to depression as his “black dog”. Yet even the shading of these colors is significant; when we describe someone as being “blue”, we rarely imagine the pale, soothing blue of a spring sky. Bright red is a color of excitement and joy; deeper tones convey heat and flame and blood.

I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.

— Winston Churchill, 1911

And these tones are carried through into music. Ignoring synesthesia, it isn’t uncommon to think of a song or piece as carrying a particular color. These visual representations of key vary from person to person; if you were to ask any two musicians, you would likely get two completely different descriptions.

My personal key-color relationships. Even ignoring the colors, notice that the minor keys are universally darker than the major ones.

Having said that, there are certain keys that, almost universally represent sadness, anger and despair. As a starting point, these keys are naturally minor. The bright, exuberant major keys — the clean, purity of C major or the homeliness and warmth of E-flat major — rarely suggest any aspect of darkness. The inherent sad quality of the minor key, however, is inextricable.

The falling of tears.

Part of this is in the psychological impact of the falling semitone; to turn major into minor, the third key of the scale falls by one semitone. The very nature of falling and descent is linked to death (going underground) and sadness (the falling of tears). One of the most heart-wrenching progressions is the fall from the sixth note of a minor scale to the fifth (especially if the root note remains in the bass). A wonderful example of this is the opening of Sotto Vento by Ludovico Einaudi.

However, quite apart from this inherent quality of the minor keys, there is a particular key (or closely related keys) that has throughout the history of western music been used to express the deepest pathos and despair. Countless works have been based on this key, and they are without exception some of the most beautiful, and tragic, pieces of music ever written.

I speak, of course, of B minor (the key that, for me, is represented by the deepest black). There is likely a reason for this; C major, the standard and most oft used key, is above this by one semitone. The shift, the fall from this key of happiness, represents a profound shift from light to dark.

Violin part from the first edition of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

What’s interesting, however, is that this history of this key is not so straightforward. Though from the 1800s onwards B minor because a de facto standard for sadness, it was prior to this rarely used. Instead, the tonally slightly higher key of C minor was used instead. Mozart wrote a beautiful mass in C minor (despite rarely using minor keys in general); one of his best piano concertos is the twenty-fourth in C minor. Later, Beethoven used this key for one of the most famous and furious of compositions: the raging fifth symphony in C minor. He was attracted to this key several times further: his eighth piano sonata, the Pathétique; the third piano concerto (clearly and heavily influenced by Mozart’s own piano concerto in the same key), and the thirty-second piano sonata (one of the last pieces he ever wrote).

The tragedy of Swan Lake.

Yet something happened in the early nineteenth century that changed this, and suddenly the key of despair dropped a semitone. We began to see works such as Schubert‘s eighth symphony, Chopin‘s third piano sonata, Liszt’s only piano sonata and the wonderful Totentanz, and Brahms’ chamber works (one of the most delicate and beautiful, the first piano trio in B, is in fact half in B minor). And then there was Tchaikovsky. B minor was an epic favorite of this troubled composer, being the home key of his first piano concerto, the beautiful Swan Lake, the furious passages of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and of course the intensely tragic and heartbreaking sixth symphony, the Pathétique.

Though at first it might appear that there are therefore two keys of darkness, and that the choice of key is down to the individual perception of the composer, it turns out not to be so simple. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was no set tonal standard, meaning that different countries, and indeed different orchestras, would have their own definitions of standard concert tonality. In most cases, of course, the tonalities were similar – often differing by one semitone.

And to this day, as western tonalities became standardized (a practice that was only formalized in the 1950s), the key of B minor has assumed reign as the common standard for darkness, and despair.