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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4, analysis by Gerard Schwarz (part 1)

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 4" by Tchaikovsky) - Tchaikovsky fourth is an amazing work, written at a remarkable time in Tchaikovsky's life. He was 37 years old, he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. He had just written Swan Lake, one of his great ballets. The First Piano Concerto, one of the greatest piano concertos. I mean, it was a fantastic time for him. At the same time, he married a young woman, who was in his class at the Moscow Conservatory. She was chasing him, she was in love him, she wrote him notes. Eventually he decided that to stop all the rumors about his homosexuality, it would be great to marry her, and it would be a nice platonic relationship, and she would understand and everything would be great. Well, it didn't quite go that way. She didn't quite understand (chuckles), and the marriage only lasted for nine weeks, and he supposedly had a nervous breakdown at the conclusion of that marriage, and the marriage was annulled, but at the same time another woman came into his life, Nadezhda von Meck. Madame von Meck was a widow and quite wealthy. She was a great music lover, and a great lover of Tchaikovsky's music, and she decided to give him a monthly stipend. This lasted for 14 years. Tchaikovsky was able to quit teaching and devote himself to music, and then he wrote the Fourth Symphony and dedicated it to von Meck. The extraordinary thing is that the two of them never met. They only corresponded but because of that correspondence, of some 500 letters, we really have a feeling for what Tchaikovsky was thinking at every moment. Even though this symphony is not a programatic symphony, if you read the letters, it does seem that way. Many people believe the first movement, which is the most difficult, the most complicated, the longest, was very programatic. Tchaikovsky, of course, like every composer, said no, it's a symphony on its own, you don't have to have a program to have a great symphony. That said, in his letters to von Meck, yes, it had a program and the program was basically that fate is always hanging over our shoulders. It's always there and fate isn't wonderful, it's reality. There are dreamlike moments in our lives, and glorious moments, but always looking over our shoulder we have fate, we call it a struggle with fate because this opening theme played by the horns, and then extended by the lower brass, then the upper brass, is that fate motive. ("Symphony No. 4" by Tchaikovsky) At the end the horns make a decrescendo. They get softer playing that same material. The extension of the fate motive is in the clarinet and bassoons. I think it's important that he makes that bridge orchestrationally from the brass to the woodwinds, to the first theme of the first movement, which is played by the violins and cello. This is the dream motive. It's beautiful, it's soft. He says that it should be played in the tempo of a waltz, but he doesn't write it as a waltz, yet it does have that feeling in the way of a waltz, but not one that's grounded the way a Johann Strauss waltz would be. This material that he uses is developed right away, building up dynamically, building up orchestrationally. Very often, which Tchaikovsky does in his movement is he really has the woodwind section, which is piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, as a section, and then he has the brass section, which is two trumpets, four horns, three trombones, and tuba, as a section. The strings as a section. The percussion, really, he uses specially at the end of the symphony, there are more cymbal crashes (chuckles) than I think in any other one symphony ever written, but he uses that as a help to get us to the frenzy that he's looking for at the end of the last movement. The second theme is introduced by a bridge section. There's a little conversation between the clarinet and bassoon. Then the bassoon does the transition to the clarinet playing the second theme. The clarinet plays the melody and every time the melody comes to a little stop, there's a little interjection from the flutes, from the second clarinet, from the bassoon, and it happens constantly like that until the second part of this theme comes in with the cellos playing the melody. The cellos, in a sense, are extending that clarinet theme. After the cellos extended it, well, then the woodwinds extend it. A little bit later, the violins come in and all they do is. (simple piano melody) So they take a little part of that cello melody. Just that part and they do it as a whole nother section. So he takes a little bit of that melody and he plays, and then it's answered by the woodwinds. And, again, this is the same kind of thing that is developed and he develops that marvelously and the we start the development section and, of course, in the development section the composer uses his imagination to change things, change things harmonically, melodically, vary the dynamics, vary the orchestration, anything he can think of to keep us interested and excited to see what's gonna be coming next. It becomes a little more aggressive, and louder, and more passionate, and the fate motive comes in. That fate motive is always looking over our shoulders. The fate motive is always played by the brass, sometimes doubled by the woodwinds, but it's a brass motive, it's a trumpet motive, or it's a horn motive, and that comes up, and sure enough, when the development is going really well and very exciting, (puffs) he has to put that fate in to remind us. This builds again tremendously to what should be the recapitulation, the bringing back to the beginning, the first theme. He does this in a remarkably interesting way and instead of having it be as a dream, it's powerful, it's aggressive, it's in some ways glorious, but in some ways ominous. After that, there is very little of an introduction to the second theme and this time, as with so many great composers, instead of having the clarinet play that theme, now the bassoon plays it, and the extension of the theme, before played by the cellos, is now played by the horn. Again, this is developed, as one would expect, and the fate motive comes back in to remind us that it's not so wonderful and then he writes a little new material. Again, it's somewhat dreamlike, but in a very different style from the opening violin melody. (simple piano melody) And that little melody becomes the material in a very quick way for the coda.