The Thing About Tchaikovsky's 4th...

The thing about Tchaikovsky’s 4th ....

 I was a teenager playing the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony in the now defunct Santa Monica Youth Orchestra. I thought, no wonder Brahms had it in for Tchaikovsky. The overly bombastic finale, the oh so cute pizzicato scherzo movement. Even the emotional 1st movement seemed so overwrought. Yet here I am of my own choice, about to perform Tchaikovsky’s fourth this weekend, not as last stand 2nd violin, but as conductor of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. And with a far different understanding this time around…

Yes, that finale is over-the-top bombastic, but Tchaikovsky was being sardonic. Like the Shostakovich finales, this shouldn’t be joyful music, but frenzied abandon on the brink of chaos. The pacing should inexorably push to the dramatic moment when the “fanfare of doom” that began the symphony intrudes on the festivities. It should feel like dropping off a cliff.

Is this the first truly autobiographical symphony? (I don’t count the BerliozSymphonie Fantastique because it recounts that composer’s dream vision) I can practically envision Gustav Mahler as a student eagerly studying the score. That opening trumpet fanfare that represents fate and the hero—surely that is the source for the trumpet opening of Mahler's 5th, just as much as it is a Beethoven 5th quote. The C major chord fanfare in the horns in the development against a dissonant B in the timpani— that's just like the distant dissonant fanfares in Mahler's 1st symphony! The frenzied counterpoint in the first movement between the first theme in the strings against a powerful descending chromatic scale in the brass—that page of score echoes in practically every Mahler symphonic development! Mahler's symphonies are famously autobiographical and Tchaikovsky provided the model. I had not understood this before.

As every program note mentions, Tchaikovsky composed this symphony in Italy after essentially fleeing from his brief catastrophic marriage. He brings us a feeling of such aching displacement in the first movement, quoting an Italian canzona, perhaps a street song he heard? Yet even this quote is emotionally complex, alternating with the depressing and chromatic slithery first theme, lilting beauty contrasting with inconsolable sorrow. He wrote to his patron Madame von Meck that the symphony was based on its initial motive, “that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal.”

I hear alienation as the theme of this symphony. Remember the famous quote of Mahler about being three times homeless—as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian in Germany, and as Jew throughout the world? Tchaikovsky is saying it here first—alienated as a Russian in Western Europe, as a Western-influenced composer in a Russian nationalistic environment that criticized his work, and, of course, as a man who could never reveal his sexual orientation in society. 

It's the way he expressed this alienation musically that has me so excited to perform the piece. Many comment on the originality of the first movement—an extensive sonata lasting twenty minutes. What strikes me most powerfully is that it's tonality is ambiguous and "confused" as it struggles to establish  F minor or E major as its home key. The introduction sets up this tension. The fanfare opens on the note A flat, not F, and the first interval we hear against the melody suggests an E major chord (we hear A flat enharmonically as G sharp). Yes, the introduction eventually sets up the first theme in F minor, but the second area begins with an eerie waltz in G# minor followed by the Italian canzona theme in B major—both keys closely related to E major, not F minor. This complex relationship creates a tension that requires considerable "working out" and that is why the movement is so long.

I find it astonishing that Tchaikovsky could express in purely musical structure the emotion of not truly belonging to one group or the other. The pathos invites an orchestra to deeply explore these ambiguities. In that mighty first movement, there is a moment before the coda that most orchestras just breeze through. The music slithers down to a reduction of just two notes doubled by all the strings. Can you guess which notes they are? You bet—'F' and 'E'—the two tones that are battling for supremacy throughout the movement. Trust me, I will not be breezing through those notes this weekend—I will make it the climax of the whole piece!

If you are familiar with the piece (and most classical listeners are), I would be interested to know your thoughts about this symphony.