Composers > Anecdotes > Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 - Premiered Today in 1878
by Georg Predota | February 10th, 2019

standard Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4
Premiered Today in 1878

Tchaikovsky and Antonia, year 1877

Tchaikovsky and Antonia, year 1877

When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 4 in F minor premiered at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on 10 February 1878, it represented a veritable breakthrough in terms of emotional depth and complexity. This symphonic hybrid, which subsequently acquired the nickname “Fate,” brought to an end the emotional rollercoaster ignited by his marital predicament. Considering his wife Antonina Milyukova a terrible wound, he writes to his brother Anatoly, “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.” Throughout this most turbulent time in his personal life, Tchaikovsky continued to work on his Fourth Symphony. Although we should cautiously guard against blindly projecting or transferring autobiographical information unto a musical work, some of the composer’s anguish and torment was nevertheless musically expressed. In fact, the composer wrote a detailed programme for each movement, disclosing his philosophical thoughts and most intimate sentiments. He tellingly describes the opening movement as “Destiny, that fateful force which impedes the impulse toward fulfillment, is invincible. All we can do is subject ourselves and vainly lament.”

The Fate motif

The Fate motif

Tchaikovsky later confided in his student, the composer Sergei Taneyev: “Of course my 4th symphony has a program, but of a kind impossible to formulate in words… Was it not the purpose of the symphony as a musical form to express that for which there are no words, but which surges from the soul and demands expression?” Tchaikovsky’s initial programmatic explanations of the symphony hindered acceptance of the work for many years. Initial critical reaction to the work was unfavorable, with a reviewer in the New York Post calling it “one of the most thoroughly Russian, i.e. semi-barbaric compositions ever heard in the city… If Tchaikovsky had called his symphony ‘A Sleigh Ride Through Siberia’ no one would have found this title inappropriate.” And a reviewer in Germany wrote, “The composer’s twaddle disturbed my mood. The confusion in brass and the abuse of the kettledrums drove me away!” Only gradually did the musical world come to realize that in this fateful work the composer found the symphonic method to match his temperament to his talents!

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