Thursday, May 10, 2007

This All-Consuming Gloom Devours the Few, Brief Glimpses of Happiness

Piotr Tchaikovsky was undergoing a life-crisis at the time of undertaking the composition of his 4th Symphony. The year was 1877 and he had just entered a marriage with a former student of his who had used the threat of suicide to emotionally blackmail him into the bonds of holy matrimony.

Engaged in such a relationship at the time that he was really wanting to abandon himself to his musical muse was perceived to be a hindrance and led to feelings of not being able to escape the whims of a merciless Fate. While he was sketching the opera Evgenii Onegin, he plummeted himself into the abyss of composing his 4th Symphony and found an emotional catharsis of sorts.

The instrumentation of the piece is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings. The symphony itself consists of four movements; in his own words:

First Movement: Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima - Moderato assai, quasi andante - Allegro vivo. “Destiny, that fateful force which impedes the impulse toward fulfilment, which jealously ensures that prosperity and peace are never complete and cloudless, which hangs overhead like a sword of Damocles. It is invincible and you will never vanquish it. All that we can do is subject ourselves and vainly lament.”

Second Movement: Andantino in modo di canzone. “How sad to think that so much has been, so much is gone! We regret the past, yet we have neither the courage nor the desire to begin life afresh. We are weary of existence.”

Third Movement: Scherzo - Pizzicato ostinato, allegro. “Suddenly arises the memory of a drunken peasant and a ribald song, and military music in the distance. Such disconnected images flit through the brain as one sinks into a tipsy slumber. They have nothing to do with reality; they are incomprehensible, bizarre and fragmentary.”

Fourth Movement: Finale - Allegro con fuoco. “Go among the people. See how they understand how to be happy. But no sooner have you forgotten yourself in contemplation of the joys of others than Fate returns to remind you . . .”

Despite the fact that the piece wasn't well-received in its time, Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony is now a part of most orchestra's repertoire.

Here is Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony in F Minor performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1963.

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