I. Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima
Early 1877 to January 1878 (rough draft completed by the end of May 1877, orchestration beginning in August 1877)
February 22, 1878 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, conducted by Nicholas Rubenstein
By the start of 1877, Tchaikovsky had unofficially left his position at the Moscow Conservatory and become financially independent through the donations of Nadezhda von Meck.1 The affluent widow was not only Tchaikovsky’s primary patron during this time, but also one of his most trusted confidantes, sparking correspondences that have since provided a wealth of insight into the composer’s very private personal life. By mutual agreement the two never met, yet Tchaikovsky often shared his most intimate and deep feelings with her. Their close relationship continued until 1890, when von Meck—for reasons that remain unclear—abruptly ended her patronage.
Tchaikovsky composed the majority of his Fourth Symphony in 1877, during a highly tumultuous period in his personal life. In July, Tchaikovsky entered into a disastrous marriage with an enamored student named Antonina Milyukova. He was drawn into the ill-advised union in a desperate attempt to disguise his homosexuality, but only made himself more miserable by doing so. From his letters to Nadezhda von Meck, we see that Tchaikovsky realized almost immediately that he had made a horrible mistake—one that affected not only his emotional well-being, but his compositional abilities too.2
Tchaikovsky had sketched the first three movements of his Fourth Symphony by the end of May, but would not return to the work in earnest until weeks after his July wedding.3 This was not because Tchaikovsky and Antonina were on a blissful honeymoon, but rather because Tchaikovsky almost immediately fled to his sister’s house in the countryside.
The next few months were miserable for Tchaikovsky, consisting of a suicide attempt and subsequent nervous breakdown.4 These events seem all the more ominous in light of the feelings Tchaikovsky expressed to von Meck just weeks beforehand:
All that is left is to pretend. But to pretend to the end of one’s life is the highest torment. I was in the depths of despair… I longed ardently, greedily for death. Death seemed to me the only way out – but to kill myself was unthinkable… I know that if I decided on suicide and carried it through, I should be dealing a mortal blow to my family… So, death does not come to me, I shall not and cannot go to him – what then remains?5
Although Tchaikovsky and Antonina never legally divorced, by October the marriage was over. Tchaikovsky returned to his work on the Fourth Symphony after the separation, and finally completed the score in early January. While the reaction to the Moscow premiere on February 24th was underwhelming, the first performance in St. Petersburg proved to be an immense success. Unfortunately for Tchaikovsky, though, the symphony would not reach a sustained level of popularity until after his death.
The clearest insight into the meaning of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony comes from his correspondences with Nadezhda von Meck. Concerning the second movement, he writes:
There is a programme to our symphony, i.e. there is the possibility of putting into words what it is trying to express, and to you, to you alone, I want to tell and can tell the meaning both of the whole and the separate sections. Be it understood, I am attempting this only in general terms… The second movement of the symphony expresses another phase of depression. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when one sits alone, tired from work, having picked up a book but let it fall from one’s hands. A whole host of memories appears. And one is sad because so much is gone, past, and it is pleasant to remember one’s youth. And one regrets the past, yet has no wish to begin to live all over again. Life wearies one. It is pleasant to rest and to reflect. One remembers much. There were happy moments when young blood pulsed and life was good. There were gloomy moments, too, irreplaceable losses. All that is indeed somewhere far off. And it is sad and somehow sweet to bury oneself in the past.6
1 Roland John Wiley, "Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il′yich," In Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51766pg4 (accessed July 9, 2011).
2 John Warrack, Tchaikovsky (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 115.
3 Field, 662.
4 Warrack, 118. Tchaikovsky evidently waded out into the icy Moskva River in September, purposefully trying to catch pneumonia.
5 Ibid., 116.
6 Warrack, 134-36.