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Program Notes - Tchaikovsky's Fourth

Symphony No. 104 in D major (London)
Joseph Haydn

b. Rohrau, Lower Austria / March 31, 1732
d. Vienna, Austria / May 31, 1809


After his royal employer, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, died in 1791, Haydn remained officially on the payroll but actually became a free agent in all but name. He found himself in the happy position of having several excellent job offers from which to choose. The one he settled upon came from a forthright individual who turned up on his doorstep in Vienna. Johann Peter Salomon was a successful German born impresario and violinist based in England. “I am Salomon of London and have come to fetch you,” he said bluntly. “Tomorrow we will arrange an accord.” It was that simple.

Haydn made two trips to England, in 1791-92 and 1794-95. For them, he composed 12 new symphonies (Nos. 93 through 104), six for each season. No special reason has survived to explain why No. 104 has come to be known as the “London” Symphony. The nickname could be applied with equal appropriateness to any of the symphonies composed for Salomon’s concerts. Perhaps its stature as the final symphony by the earliest master of the form played a role. The first performance probably took place on April 13, 1795. What is certain is that Haydn chose it to be played again at his farewell concert in London three weeks later.

The commanding introduction, in slow tempo and the key of D minor, contains the seeds of much that will follow. Haydn launches the movement proper with a switch to Allegro and the home key of D major. He treats his materials, as appealing as always, with the confident mastery that only unfailing ingenuity and decades of experience can earn.

From the simplest of ideas, Haydn constructs one of his most fetching slow movements. An opening and closing characterized by relaxed confidence envelope a somewhat agitated, occasionally poignant central “eye.” The slyly pompous minuet sports a relaxed, sparely scored country dance as its central trio.

Recent research has identified the joyous (and sole) theme of the finale as a folk melody, one heard commonly in several lands, including Croatia and its surrounding territories, where Haydn had once lived. This same tune was also used as two separate London street peddlers’ cries at the time of his visits: “Hot cross buns!” and “Live cod!” Perhaps the shouts that he heard daily as he walked the bustling streets of the city awakened his memories of the long ago days he had spent in southeast Europe.

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

This turbulent work reflects the personal turmoil Tchaikovsky underwent during its creation. He began composing it in February 1877, during the same period that he entered into highly influential relationships with two women. The first was Nadezhda von Meck, an immensely wealthy patron of music. Already deeply attached to Tchaikovsky’s compositions, she made contact with him through a mutual acquaintance, conductor/pianist Nikolay Rubinstein. She agreed to supply Tchaikovsky with a generous monthly allowance of 500 rubles, thus giving him the freedom to compose more freely.

She did so on the condition that they would never meet. In the letters they wrote to each other over the ensuing 13 years, however, they developed a profound personal intimacy. While composing the Fourth Symphony, he frequently referred to it in his letters as “our symphony” or even “your symphony.”

The second woman to enter Tchaikovsky’s life was Antonina Milyukova, an emotionally unstable former student in his composition class at the Moscow Conservatory. Her declarations of love left him deeply confused. His lack of experience in personal matters, his desperate desire to conceal his homosexuality, a desire to please his aging father by getting respectably married off and Milyukova’s persistence led him to give into her advances. They were married on July 6.

He had apparently attempted to impress upon her that theirs was to be a strictly platonic relationship. The message had not gotten through, however, with the result that their union lasted just a few months. Tchaikovsky became so distraught that he had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. He fled to France, Italy and Austria. After resuming work on the symphony towards the end of the year, he completed it in Venice during January 1878. Nikolay Rubinstein conducted the first performance, which took place in Moscow one month later.

In a letter to Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky disclosed the ideas and emotions which he had borne in mind while composing the symphony. These revelations reinforced points of philosophy which he had expressed earlier, but did so with an added level of intensity born of his recent experiences.

A harsh brass fanfare opens the symphony and recurs throughout it. “This is Fate,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “the power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealousy provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds – a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head, that poisons continually the soul. This might is overpowering and invincible. There is nothing to do but submit and vainly to complain.”

The two main themes of the first movement proper are a restless, yearning string melody and a wistful, dance like theme introduced by solo clarinet. The latter offers some moments of consolation, only to be driven savagely into the background by the Fate theme. The coda is stark and uncompromisingly tragic: Fate seen triumphant.

“The second movement shows another phase of sadness,” Tchaikovsky continued. “Here is that melancholy feeling that enwraps one when he sits alone at night in the house exhausted by work; a swarm of reminiscences arises. It is sad, yet sweet, to lose one’s self in the past.”

The atmosphere of gloom is dispelled by a playful scherzo, where the strings play pizzicato from first bar to last. “Here are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated,” according to Tchaikovsky. In the middle section, oboes and bassoons give out a rustic dance tune, while brass and piccolo offer a humorous imitation of military band music.

A brilliant flourish for full orchestra gets the finale under way at top speed. Woodwinds introduce the main theme, a Russian folk song called In the Meadow There Stands a Birch Tree. The original words have to do with the fates of unmarried women, marking a possible connection with Tchaikovsky’s bride. A confident, march like theme appears. After this sequence is repeated, the atmosphere gradually loses its sense of well being. The Fate theme makes a catastrophic reappearance, bringing the festivities to a grinding halt.

But all is not lost. “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity. There still is happiness, simple, naive happiness. Rejoice in the happiness of others – and you can still live.” The music regains its momentum, to end in a blaze of celebration.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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