Musical Trifecta

Folly Theater (driving directions)
300 W 12th St
Kansas City, MO 64105

Saturday, April 28th, 2012 – 7:30pm
Pre-concert talk: 6:45 p.m with
Christopher Kelts, conductor
Admission: FREE !

Come and enjoy our 2011/12 season finale!  Conductor Christopher Kelts kicks off the program at 6:45pm with his discussion of the composers and their work which is sure to be both humorous and informative.  Both the talk and the concert are free and open to the public.  No tickets required — just come and enjoy!

  • Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture
  • Botessini: Concerto for Bass & Orchestra – Jeffrey Kail, bass
  • Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Symphony No. 4

Симфония № 4

Op. 36 (1877).

Catalogue References TH 27 ; ČW 24
Date March(?)–December 1877
Key F minor
Tempo/Section Listing
  1. Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima (F minor, 424 bars)
  2. Andantino in modo di canzona (B♭ minor, 304 bars)
  3. Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato. Allegro (F major, 414 bars)
  4. Finale. Allegro con fuoco (F major, 293 bars)
Instrumentation Piccolo, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets (B♭, A), 2 Bassoons + 4 Horns (F), 2 Trumpets (F), 3 Trombones, Tuba + Timpani, Triangle, Cymbals, Bass Drum + Violins I, Violins II, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses
First Performance Moscow, 10/22 February 1878, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein
Autograph Location Moscow (Russia): Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture (ф. 88, No. 58)
First Publication Moscow: P. Jurgenson, 1879 (arrangement for piano duet by Sergei Taneev), 1880 (full score)
Average Duration 42 minutes
Dedication “To my best friend” (= Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, 1831–1894)
Note See also Study Scores
External Links IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (downloadable score)
Wikipedia (article)


The first references to the composition of the Fourth Symphony are encountered in letters from Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck dating from early May 1877. In a letter of 1/13 May, he wrote that he was now: “… engrossed in a symphony, which I began to write during the winter… Any other type of work would weigh heavily upon me at the moment—in other words the sort of work which requires a certain frame of mind… I find that now my nerves are frayed and irritable when I am deflected from the symphony, which progress with some difficulty” [1].

By 3/15 May the first three movements had been written. “I have prepared the first three movements in sketch form, and have set about the finale”, the composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, “but because lately I have had no inclination to work, I shall set it aside until the summer” [2]. Yet on 27 May/8 June, Tchaikovsky told her: “The symphony is finished, i.e. in outline. By the end of the summer it should be scored” [3].

In fact the instrumentation of the symphony was not begun until August 1877. In May and June, the composer worked on his opera Evgenii Onegin; then he travelled to Saint Petersburg and Kiev in connection with his wedding arrangements. He arrived at Kamenka on 30 July/12 August, but did not immediately start work there: “I would be lying if I said that I have returned to my normal state of mind. This is insufferable… and singularly disappointing. I have decided not to do any further work. Work frightens and oppresses me… Hopefully my urge to work will return” [4].

However, it was not long before Tchaikovsky began to orchestrate the symphony [5], and on 12/24 August he could report: “Our symphony is progressing a little. I will take particular care when orchestrating the first movement—it is very long and complicated; yet it is also, in my opinion, the best movement. The remaining three are much simpler, and orchestrating them will be very enjoyable. The Scherzo employs a new orchestral effect, which I have designed myself” [6].

The instrumentation of the first movement was delayed. On 27 August/8 September, Tchaikovsky told his brother Anatolii that he was working on the piano score of the opera Evgenii Onegin [7].

On 12/24 September, Tchaikovsky reported from Moscow to Nadezhda von Meck: “I have scored the first movement of the symphony” [8]. However, it is apparent from the composer’s subsequent letters that the instrumentation of the first movement was still unfinished at this point.

On 24 September/6 October, for the sake of his health [following the end of his marriage], Tchaikovsky left Moscow for Saint Petersburg, and eventually abroad. In a letter of 16/28 October, he asked Petr Jurgenson to send on to Clarens the copy-book containing the sketches of the symphony, which he had left behind in Moscow [9].

“I have done a little work, and now I can say with some certainty that our symphony will be finished by December at the latest…”, he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 25 October/6 November 1877 [10].

The package with the sketches arrived in Switzerland when Tchaikovsky had already moved on to Rome, and the sketches did not reach him until 11/23 November. “You can imagine how anxious I was!”, wrote Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, “… if the symphony should have been lost, I would not have had the strength to write it all out again from memory!” [11].

Tchaikovsky did not take up the orchestration straight away, presumably because he did not want to interrupt the work he had already started on the opera Evgenii Onegin [12].

From December onwards, Tchaikovsky worked on the instrumentation of the symphony almost without interruption. From his surviving letters we can follow the course of work in detail:

  • 2/14 December: “Tomorrow I shall throw myself into the symphony…” [13].
  • 3/15 December: “… in the morning set about my symphony” [14].
  • 4/16 December: “I sat, immersed in the instrumentation of the symphony…” [15]. “This is the second day that I have worked on my symphony, and I am working very assiduously” [16].
  • 5/17 December: The instrumentation of the symphony “… comes to me with great difficulty. I wrote from morning to dinner time, until in the evening I was so tired that I could do no more” [17]. “… I have worked diligently on my symphony all day” [18].
  • 6/18 December: “The first movement is almost ready. I can say with confidence that this is my best composition” [19]. “I am very pleased with this symphony—it’s undoubtedly the best that I’ve written, but it’s not come without hard work, particularly the first movement” [20].
  • 7/19 December: “I’m probably near the end of the symphony, on which I’ve worked with great vigour” [21].
  • 9/21 December: “Not only am I occupying myself assiduously with scoring our symphony, I am utterly absorbed in this work. None of my previous orchestral works ever cost me such labour, yet I have never felt such a love for one of my own pieces. I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this work. At first I wrote largely for the sake of completing the symphony, knowing how difficult this task would eventually be. But little by little it captured my enthusiasm, and now my difficulties have fallen away… perhaps I am mistaken, but I think that this symphony is something out of the ordinary, and that it is the best thing I have done so far… Now I… can wholly devote myself to work in the knowledge that I am bringing forth something which, in my opinion, shall not be forgotten…” [22].
  • 10/22 December: “The first movement of the symphony is coming to an end. Today I worked extremely hard, and I’m very tired” [23].
  • 11/23 December: “Today I finished the most difficult movement of the symphony—the first” [24]. On the fair copy of the manuscript full score of the first movement is the note: “Venice 23(11) December 1877″.
  • 12/24 December: “Today I set about the second half of the symphony’s second movement. The work becomes easier with each hour that passes. I hope that, in spite of the interruption, the whole thing will be finished before our New Year” [25]. “When I wrote the opera [Evgenii Onegin], I did not experience the same feeling as with the symphony. There I took a chance: perhaps it will do, or maybe nothing will come of it. But while writing the symphony I’m fully aware that it is a composition out of the ordinary, and far more perfect in form than anything I’ve written previously” [26].

The date on the manuscript full score of the second movement indicates that the instrumentation was completed on 13/25 December 1877.

  • 15/27 December: “The symphony is absorbing me so much, that I haven’t the strength to tear myself away from it” [27]. “Finished the Scherzo. Very tired” [28]. The date on the manuscript of the third movement reads: “27/15 Dec 1877. Venezia“.
  • 16/28 December: “There can be no question that in these two weeks my state of health, physically and mentally, has been excellent. A not inconsiderable factor in this has been my symphony, the work on which has filled me with enthusiasm… At the moment three movements are ready; I do not know how long I shall be busy with the remainder—but it seems to me that these three movements represent the crowning glory of all my musical achievements” [29].
  • 20 December 1877/1 January 1878: “In this symphony I have succeeded in writing something good—tomorrow I shall be reconciled to all former and future misfortunes” [30].

Work on the symphony was interrupted for a few days by negotiations concerning Tchaikovsky’s appointment to a delegation at the Paris International Exhibition (“I was preparing to start on the finale of the symphony today…”) [31]. Tchaikovsky declined to go on this tour: “It is essential that I should be as far away as possible from all that noise and bustle… Peace, peace, peace and work—these are the two things that I need right now”, he wrote to Nikolai Rubinstein, who had proposed his name for the delegation [32].

On 24 December/5 January, Tchaikovsky resumed the instrumentation of the symphony: “This morning I set about my symphony, and worked all day; this is the reason that I am so tired…”, he wrote to Anatolii Tchaikovsky the same day [33].

On 26 December/7 January, the composer reported: “Yesterday and today I did not move from my desk, and today I have finished my beloved symphony” [34]. This statement is corroborated by a note after the fourth movement of the manuscript score: “San Remo 7 Jan 1878 (26 Dec 1877)”.

A few more days were devoted to “putting the final touches to the full score, which I shall take with me, so that in Milan I might obtain a metronome and insert the correct tempi”. On 29 December/10 January, Tchaikovsky sent the full score to Moscow [35].

On finishing the symphony, the composer wrote: “It seems to me that this is my best work. Of my two latest creations, i.e. the opera and the symphony, I favour the latter” [36]. “What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I… am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development…” [37].

The Fourth Symphony was performed for the first time in Moscow at the tenth concert of the Russian Musical Society on 10/22 February 1878, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein, where it had great success. On 25 November/7 December the same year, the symphony was performed in Saint Petersburg at the fifth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, where it was a brilliant success. In a letter to the composer, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote about the impression the symphony had made on the public [38].

In letters to Nadezhda von Meck and Sergei Taneev, Tchaikovsky disclosed more about the content of the Fourth Symphony. In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 17 February/1 March 1878, he set out a detailed programme for the symphony:

You asked me whether there is a definite programme to this symphony? Usually in respect of a symphonic work I would answer: none whatsoever. And indeed, this is the answer to your question. How can one put into words the intangible feelings which one experiences, when writing an instrumental work without a definite subject? This is a purely lyrical process, and essentially a musical unburdening of the soul in music, similar to the way in which a poet expresses himself in verse… In our symphony there is a programme, i.e. it is possible to express in words what it is trying to say, and to you, and only to you, I am able and willing to explain the meaning both of the whole and of the separate movements. Of course, I can do this only in a general way.

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea:

This is fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. An invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, miserably.

The gloomy and hopeless feelings become more inflamed and intense. Is it not better to escape from reality and to take refuge in dreams:

O joy! Out of nowhere a sweet and gentle day-dream appears. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away:

How wonderful! How distant now sounds the obsessive first theme of the allegro! Gradually the soul is enveloped by daydreams. Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. There it is, there it is—happiness!

No! These were merely daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them:

And so all life is an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness… No haven exists… Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths. That, roughly, is the programme of the first movement.

The second movement of the symphony expresses another phase of sadness. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one’s toil, one sits alone with a book—but it falls from the hand. There come a whole host of memories. It is both sad that so much is now past and gone, yet pleasant to recall one’s youth—both regretting the past, and yet not wishing to begin life over again. Life is wearying. It is pleasant to rest and look around. Memories abound. Happy moments when the young blood boiled, and life was satisfying; there are also painful memories, irreconcilable losses. All this is now somewhere far distant. It is both sad, yet somehow sweet to be immersed in the past.

The third movement expresses no definite feeling. It is made up of capricious arabesques, of elusive images which can rush past in the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication. The spirit is neither cheerful, nor yet sad. Thinking about nothing, giving free rein to the imagination, which somehow begins to paint strange pictures. Amid these memories there suddenly comes a picture of drunken peasants and a street song … Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes. These are completely disparate images which rush past in the head during sleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are strange, wild, and disjointed.

The fourth movement: if within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible fate again appears and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves! How happy they are that all their feelings are simple and straightforward. Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Joy is simple, but powerful. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.

Well, this is all that I can explain about the symphony. Of course, this is vague and incomplete. But a basic quality of instrumental music is that it cannot be subjected to detailed analysis. “Where words end, music begins“, as Heine remarked… This is the first time in my life that I have attempted to put musical thoughts and images into words, and I cannot manage to do this properly. I was extremely depressed during the winter when writing the symphony, and it rather echoes my feelings at that time… They remain, in general, memories of most terrible and dreadfully difficult times” [39].

The Finale of the symphony employs the Russian folk-song “In the Field a Birch Tree Stood” (Во поле береза стояла).

It is interesting to note that sometime later, in reply to a critical letter from Sergei Taneev [40], Tchaikovsky wrote: “As to your remark that my symphony is programmatic, then I am in complete agreement. I just do not understand why you consider this to be a defect. It is the opposite that I fear—i.e. I should not wish symphonic works to flow from my pen that express nothing, and which consist of empty playing with chords, rhythms and modulations. My symphony is, of course, programmatic, but the programme is such that it is impossible to formulate in words. Such a thing would provoke ridicule and laughter. But is this not what a symphony, that is, the most lyrical of all musical forms, ought to be? Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed? However, I must confess to you: in my naivety I imagined that the idea of the symphony was very clear, that in general outline its sense could be understood even without a programme. Please do not think that I am trying to plume myself in front of you with my depth of feelings and grandeur of thoughts that are not susceptible of verbal expression. I was not even seeking to express a new idea. In essence my symphony is an imitation of Beethoven‘s Fifth, that is, I was imitating not his musical thoughts, but the fundamental idea. […] Furthermore, I’ll add that there is not a note in this symphony (that is, in mine) which I did not feel deeply, and which did not serve as an echo of sincere impulses within my soul. A possible exception is the middle of the first movement, in which there are contrivances, seams, glued-together bits—in a word, artificiality[41].

All his life, Tchaikovsky retained a love for this symphony. At the end of 1878 he wrote: “I adore terribly this child of mine; it is one of only a few works with which I have not experienced disappointment” [42]. Ten years later, when referring to the symphony, he wrote “it turns out that not only have I not cooled towards it, as I have cooled towards the greater part of my compositions, but on the contrary, I am filled with warm and sympathetic feelings towards it. I don’t know what the future may bring, but presently it seems to me that this is my best symphonic work[43].

Tchaikovsky was very anxious that the symphony should be published in the best possible way [44]. When dispatching the full score to Moscow, Tchaikovsky asked Jurgenson to entrust the piano arrangement to Sergei Taneev or Karl Klindworth [45]. The next day he approached Taneev with the same request, and the latter readily agreed [46]. However, this work was delayed until June 1878 because of a projected performance in Saint Petersburg, and Nikolai Rubinstein‘s intention to perform the Scherzo from the symphony in Paris [47]. This seriously delayed publication of the symphony. On 6/18 November 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: “Our symphony is being printed” [48]. However, it was not until June 1879 that he checked the proofs of the full score and piano arrangement. In August that year, Taneev’s arrangement for piano duet was issued [49]. The full score did not appear in print until early September 1880 [50].

The symphony is dedicated to Nadezhda von Meck—on the title page is the inscription: “Dedicated to my best friend”.

From: Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 220–229
English text copyright © 2006 Brett Langston