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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
"Leaper's laid-back tempo strikes me as ideal"
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17 "Little Russian"
Symphony No.4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability, and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally accepted.
As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the West European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal. Hanslick, in Vienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violin concerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russian element in the last of the six symphonies. In England and America there had been a heartier welcome, and in the latter country he had been received with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that at home. In his diary of the American concert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on the curious habit of American critics, who tended to concentrate their attention on the appearance and posture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51 he was described in the American press as "a tall, gray, interesting man, well on to sixty".
In 1872 Tchaikovsky spent part of the summer at Kamenka at the house of his elder sister Sasha, a welcome respite from his now irksome duties at the Moscow Conservatory, an institution threatened by a chronic shortage of money. July brought a visit to Kiev, to the house of his friend Kondratyev at Nizy and to the consumptive Shilovsky at Usovo, during the course of which he nearly lost the sketches of a second symphony, which he had started at Kamenka. Known as The Little Russian, the symphony was completed by the end of the year and Tchaikovsky was able to play through the Finale at the Rimsky-Korsakovs’ in St. Petersburg at Christmas. The work received its first performance in Moscow in February 1873, to be repeated in April and to be played in St. Petersburg in March, to the approval of the group of nationalist composers, whose principles it seemed to endorse. The whole work was extensively revised by the composer in 1880.
The first movement was completely rewritten by Tchaikovsky, to his own satisfaction but not always to that of later critics. The Andante sostenuto opening offers a folk-tune from the Ukraine, a region known as Little Russia. The melody is introduced by the horn and echoed by the bassoon, later to be taken over fragmentarily by other instruments. The exposition of the movement, marked Allegro vivo, is succinctly expressed, with the initial folk-song re-appearing in the development, and making a return in conclusion.
Tchaikovsky claimed only to have rescored the second movement, which had been retrieved from a Wedding March in the third act of his rejected opera Undine. In structure it is in three principal sections, its central portion a Ukrainian folk-song, while the outer framework is built in a similar form, the march itself enclosing a contrasting passage.
The Scherzo, allegedly shortened and rescored, shows the influence of Borodin’s First Symphony in its rhythmic variety. It has a contrasting Trio, opened by oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, to be joined by the violins in a countermelody, in a movement that demonstrates again the composer's early mastery of orchestral colour.
The Finale opens in grandiose style, leading to another Ukrainian folk-song, The Crane, similar in contour to the Promenade theme used by Mussorgsky in his Pictures at an Exhibition. This melody provides material for both introduction and first subject, while the second subject offers a number of harmonic ambiguities with an attractively lop-sided dance-rhythm. The central development makes full use of the two themes, with a recapitulation that takes us into unexpected keys before the C major conclusion.
The fourth of Tchaikovsky's six symphonies was completed in early January, 1878, and given its first performance in Moscow six weeks later. In May and early June 1877 he had completed sketches of the whole symphony. On 1st June he had met his future wife for the first time and had proposed to her a few days later. Meanwhile he was occupied too with the composition of his opera Eugene Onegin. On 18th July he married: by 7th August he had left for his brother-in-law's estate at Kamenka to escape from a wife to whom he had taken an invincible aversion. By the end of September, after attempted suicide, his marriage was at an end, and in October he left Russia to find solace in travel. Work on the symphony continued, even in these extraordinary circumstances, and its first performance was given in his absence.
In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck Tchaikovsky suggested, with various reservations, a programme for the Fourth Symphony. The seed of the whole symphony lay in the opening theme, representing Fate, a threatening sword of Damocles, to which you may reconcile yourself and languish in vain, shown in the falling melody after the introduction to the first movement. As despair grows, there may be refuge in day-dreams, suggested by the clarinet melody of the second subject, immediately followed by a shining human image of joy. Reality and Fate intervene to shatter the illusion.
The second movement, Tchaikovsky suggests, shows the sad weariness of evening, in which past happiness may be remembered and past trouble, a sense of bitter sweetness, epitomized in the opening oboe melody. The Scherzo, with its plucked strings, suggests fleeting images that hurry past, drunken peasants, a street song and a distant band of soldiers passing. The last movement proposes an answer to depression in the company of others and in their enjoyment. Fate is a reminder of subjective reality. Melancholy can disappear in the happiness of others.
The Fourth Symphony echoes to some extent the emotions that Tchajkovsky experienced at this most difficult period of his life, however difficult he found it to express the ideas behind his music verbally. It was criticized by some for what seemed a balletic element in the score, a charge the composer rebutted indignantly. Nevertheless it won general popular favour and made an excellent impression abroad that served to spread Tchaikovsky's reputation.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4