Sunday, January 09, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony: Part 2, "Art & Life"

This is part of a series of posts about Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies: you can read about the 4th here (with general background information) about the 5th here and the 6th here.
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Most people don’t pay much attention to Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies - #1 (“Winter Dreams”), #2 (the “Little Russian” or, more politically correctly, "Ukrainian" ) and #3 (“Polish” despite the fact it has a German dance in it, too); it’s probably just as well everyone ignores #7 since he didn’t finish it (he’d begun it right before he started the “Pathetique” then thinking it not very symphonic, started turning it into his 3rd Piano Concerto but died before he officially gave up on this version of it as well).

In the earlier post, I wrote about some things you might not normally read in your standard program notes, different aspects in the composer's background, particularly some of the cultural contradictions of being a Russian composer in the 2nd half of the 19th Century. Like any generalization, it has its problems but it also gives you some insights into the man as a composer

(Of these two photographs, the top left was taken in the last year of his life, when he composed his 6th Symphony; the one on the, right, dates from 1877, around the time he began work on the 4th Symphony).

But what about Tchaikovsky the Man? As most people who knew him would admit, it was obvious he was a very emotional man quick to respond to external impulses, often violently. There is no better example than those events that occurred around the time of his marriage: now in his late-30s and still unmarried, there were rumors about his homosexuality and in order to stifle them, a coincidence presented itself as a solution.

Most of the details come from Tchaikovsky’s letters to Nadezhda von Meck (see photo, left), a wealthy widow who adored Tchaikovsky’s music and wanted to offer him something of an allowance that would free him from having to teach to earn money, allowing him to concentrate all his time on composing. The only stipulation was that they must agree to never meet in person, only to write to each other in a voluminous correspondence that began in December of 1876 and lasted for 14 years.

The “other” woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was a former student, one he did not remember meeting when she was 16 and he was 25. But apparently she had had a crush on him: she signed up to take classes with him and two years after she left the school, in late March of 1877, Antonina Miliukhovna wrote him a letter, telling him of her love for him. His response was not intended to give her hope – he admitted the feeling could not be mutual – but after a series of further letters, he agreed to meet her. As he wrote to Mme. von Meck, “It seems to me as if the power of fate had drawn me to that girl.” In hindsight, he felt he was misleading the girl (she was 28 at the time, “no longer young” and past the age most women would normally have married) but by then it had gone too far. If he “turned his back on her… [he] should cause her real unhappiness and drive her to a tragic end.”

In May, just weeks after her first letter, Tchaikovsky began work on a new opera, based on one of the most famous works by a Russian author, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onyegin by Alexander Pushkin. It tells the story of a world-weary bachelor (Onyegin) and a young girl (Tatiana) who falls in love with him. She writes him a love-letter (the famous letter scene that ends the 1st Act of the opera) which Onyegin returns to her, rejecting her because she is too young and innocent for him. Years later, an even more world-weary Onyegin rediscovers the now mature Tatiana (married to an old aristocrat in Petersburg) and falls in love with her. They meet. She now rejects him.

The parallel here is obvious. Of course, he knew Pushkin’s story long before he began turning it into an opera. Did he choose the story now because of the parallel similarity in his life or did it only dawn on him a few weeks later when he first met her that she was “his Tatiana” and he might prove to be a cad like Onyegin? Before the month is out, he agreed to marry her.

The wedding takes place in Moscow on July 6th, 1877. (This photograph of the couple was taken at that time) After a week’s honeymoon in Petersburg, they move into an apartment in Moscow and a few weeks later, the composer – alone – leaves for his sister’s estate, Kamenka, in Ukraine where he spends 6 weeks composing. The day after he returns to Moscow, he has a “panic attack” and eleven days later he attempts suicide by wading into the river at night, hoping to catch pneumonia. With his brothers’ help, he arranges an end to the marriage – they do not divorce but they agree to separate and never see each other again. Tchaikovsky is taken off to Switzerland so he can recuperate from a stress-induced coma which left him unconscious for 48 hours, and Nadezhda von Meck offers him the annual allowance that will give him financial independence.

In January, 1878, Tchaikovsky finishes two works: his opera Eugene Onyegin, and the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.

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It is tempting to think of both these works – two of his greatest – in the context of these events. But whether it is a matter of “Art Imitating Life” or “Life Imitating Art” is difficult to say.

It’s obvious, considering the timing, he chose to marry Antonina because he saw her as the innocent Tatiana and himself as Onyegin. It’s also no coincidence that none of Tchaikovsky’s earlier operas succeeded – for whatever reasons – like Eugene Onyegin because he clearly loved Tatiana (her Letter Scene is one of the finest moments in Russian opera) whether he loved Antonina or not. It was only when he realized that he could put Tatiana away when he was done composing but Antonina was a real person. Whatever she was like as a person, she was not Tatiana and clearly not the woman for Tchaikovsky. He writes to Mme. von Meck about his wife’s family – clearly dysfunctional in modern terms, how the mother abuses her late husband’s memory in front of her children, some of whom she admits to hating and how the sibling rivalries are like sisters having daggers drawn for each other – that is unlike his own loving family experience. While this marriage might mask his homosexuality (which in Russia then was a crime punishable by arrest and deportation to Siberia), it was not going to “cure” him: the question I’ve never seen asked was “would Tchaikovsky have been happy living with a male partner?” Probably not.

A side-note for those wondering whatever happened to Mrs. Tchaikovsky. The next three years were marred by letters and occasional meetings. At one point, she even moved into an apartment on the floor above the composer's. Tchaikovsky arranged an allowance for her through his publisher on the condition that she, essentially, leave him alone.

Between 1881 and 1884, she had three children by unknown fathers, each child given up and soon dying in an orphanage – the first died before her first birthday; a son born six months later lived to be almost 8; a daughter died at 2.

Considering the amount of correspondence he left behind, there is only one surviving letter written to his wife, dating from 1890.

Divorce in Russia was allowable only on grounds of infidelity which would have meant, initially, Antonina would have to perjure herself (von Meck even offered her 10,000 rubles to do so). Tchaikovsky, marrying her to mask his homosexuality, now feared even more what may have been revealed in a divorce trial. Even after her first child in 1881, he chose not to pursue a divorce in the courts. He wrote to von Meck that Antonina was not to blame in the failure of their marriage but later, in his letters to his brothers, he referred to his wife as “The Reptile."

She wrote her memoirs the year after Tchaikovsky died and even though she may come off very naive and superficial, she was also very coherent, unlike ones expectation after the image we have from Tchaikovsky’s correspondence (though her own letters were full of wild accusations especially about a conspiracy on the part of his brothers to quiet her).

Three years after Tchaikovsky’s death, Antoninia was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Petersburg for four years but was readmitted the following year, staying there until her death in February 1917, two weeks before the Tsar was forced to abdicate and eight months before the Bolshevik Revolution brought an end to Imperial Russia.

Considering all this and that she spent most of the last 20 years of her life in mental institutions, one wonders what her life might have been like if, like Tatiana’s, Tchaikovsky had played the cad instead and rejected her as Onyegin had done?

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The one thing that puts a bit of a crimp in our willingness to see the 4th Symphony as his reaction to the nightmare of his marriage is the chronology.

The famous letter in which he describes the program of “our symphony” was written in February 1878, a week after its premiere. Of course, he had written to her about it long before it was finished, but the program – the explanation of the Fate Motive heard in the brass throughout the work as a “Sword of Damocles that hangs perpetually over our heads” – is all “after the fact.” Is that what was in his mind when he wrote it or something he used to explain it in hindsight?

But he writes on May 1st, 1877 – before his fateful meeting with his future wife – “At the present moment I am absorbed in the symphony I began during the winter. I should like to dedicate it to you because I believe you would find in it an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.” The fact he is working on this now is the reason he gives for turning down her very generous commission for a new work for violin and piano. “Just now any other work would be a burden – work, I mean, that would demand a certain mood and change of thought. Added to this, I am in a very nervous, worried and irritable state, highly unfavorable to composition, and even my symphony suffers in consequence.”

Following the wedding, the honeymoon and a week’s visit to his mother-in-law’s, Tchaikovsky writes to von Meck he is going on to his sister’s country estate so he can work on the symphony: “I leave in an hour’s time. A few days longer and I swear I should have gone mad.” A week later, he informs von Meck he is beginning to feel better, not quite returned to normal but annoyed that he is “absolutely incapable of taking up my work. Yet it would be the finest remedy for my morbid state of mind. I must hope that the hunger for work will return before long.”

Nine days later, he writes:

“I am much better… I must struggle against my feeling of estrangement from my wife and try to keep all her good qualities in view. For undoubtedly she has good qualities. I have so far improved that I have taken in hand the orchestration of your symphony. One of my brothers, whose judgment I value, is very pleased with such parts of it as I’ve played to him. I hope you will be equally pleased. That is the chief thing.”

The next day, he continues, after lamenting how difficult it is for him to work when around other people:

“Our symphony progresses. The first movement will give me a great deal of trouble as regards orchestration. It is very long and complicated; at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple and it will be pleasant and easy to orchestrate them. The Scherzo will have quite a new orchestral effect, from which I expect great things. At first only the string orchestra is heard, always pizzicato. In the trio the wood-winds play by themselves and at the end of the scherzo all three groups of instruments join in a short phrase. I think this effect will be interesting.”

After returning to Moscow and his new wife and their new apartment, he writes “My wife has done all she possibly could to please me. It is really a comfortable and pretty home. All is clean, new and artistic.”

“The orchestration of the first movement of our symphony is quite finished. Now I shall give myself a few days to grow used to my new life. In any case the symphony will not be ready before the end of the winter.”

Twelve days later, he suffered a “nervous breakdown,” attempting suicide and fleeing to Petersburg where his brother Anatol (who had attended the wedding in July) could barely recognize him.

At the end of this first movement, then, consider what it might have been like inside Tchaikovsky’s head – having spent six months working on this music and dealing with the unraveling details of his life during that same time: which influenced which, Art or Life?

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With living composers, a conductor or a listener in the audience could ask them something about the music they'd written. However, Tchaikovsky died 116 years ago but in his correspondence with Mme. von Meck, he can still give us some insights into his creative process: shortly after completing the 4th Symphony, he tells her,

“I write my sketches on the first piece of paper that comes to hand, sometimes a scrap of writing paper, and I write in very abbreviated form. The melody never appears in my head without its attendant harmony. In general, these two musical elements together with the rhythm cannot be conceived separately: every melodic idea carries its own inevitable harmony and rhythm. If the harmonies are very complicated, one must indicate the part-writing in the sketch….” (And the same with its orchestration.)

The next day he wrote again, illuminating some of this:

“What has been written with passion must now be looked upon critically, corrected, extended and, most important of all, condensed to fit the requirements of the form. One must sometimes go against the grain in this, be merciless and destroy things that were written with love and inspiration. Although I cannot complain of poor inventive powers or imagination, I have always suffered from lack of skill in the management of form. Only persistent labor has at last permitted me to achieve a form that in some degree corresponds to the content. In the past I was careless, I did not realize the extreme importance of this critical examination of the preliminary sketch. For this reason the succeeding episodes were loosely held together and seams were always visible. That was a serious defect and it was years before I began to correct it, yet my compositions will never be good examples of form because I can only correct what is wrong with my musical nature – I cannot change it intrinsically.”

In the months following the premiere, he wrote to her,

“You ask how I work regarding the orchestration. I never compose in the abstract – never does the musical idea come to me except with suitable exterior form. So I find the musical thought simultaneously with the orchestration. When I wrote the scherzo of the [4th] Symphony, I imagined it just as you heard it. It is impossible if not performed pizzicato. If played with the bow it would lose everything. It would be a soul without a body and all its charm would disappear.”

“As regards the Russian element in general in my music (i.e. the instances of melody and harmony originating in folk-song), I grew up in the backwoods, saturating myself from earliest childhood with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristic traits of Russian folk-song, so that I passionately love every manifestation of the Russian spirit. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.”

To us, this insistence would seem pointless: isn’t he Russian because he was born in Russia, because he is ethnically Russian? But he was often under attack from the Russian Nationalists who heard Germanic symphonies with Russian-like themes, some of them identifiable as specific folk-songs.

After she had asked him about the 4th Symphony, especially if he sticks to established forms, he responded,

“Yes and no. In certain compositions such as a symphony, the form is taken for granted and I keep to it – but only as to the large outline and proper sequence of movements. The details can be manipulated as freely as one chooses, according to the natural development of the musical idea. For instance the first movement of our symphony is handled very freely.” He then describes how the key of the second theme is handled differently and how in the recapitulation, it doesn’t appear as it should in its entirety, only in part. “The finale,” he concludes this passage, “also deviates from conventional form.”

One of the obvious symptoms of this dichotomy between his European Cosmopolitan Training and his innate Russianness can be heard in the last movement of this 4th Symphony, a different kind of deviation from convention.

The second theme is an authentic folk-song, generally entitled “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” which he writes in 4/4 like this:

Not being Russian and not having heard this tune in any other way than Tchaikovsky’s, I was surprised when years ago I first heard a recording of a little known work – at least in this country – by Mily Balakirev, the founder of the Russian Five who also worked hard to recruit Tchaikovsky into his circle. It’s in his Overture on Three Russian Themes (correction: generally known as the 1st Overture, not the 2nd as I'd noted previously), written 19 years before Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, that Balakirev uses the same folk-song – “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” – but in a way that is presumably closer to the original song (transposed here to the same key Tchaikovsky used):

Note the difference. Balakirev’s is notated in 2/4 with three measures to each phrase with a slight variation on the ‘repetition,’ along with an occasional 'improvisatory' flourishes to the basic line here and there.

Tchaikovsky, instead, writes it in 4/4 but places two beats of silence after each phrase (repeated exactly). Why?

The original folk-song moves in 3-bar phrases. German Classical Music moves in multiples of 2 and so Tchaikovsky forces this phrase into four-square units. He could, if he wanted to, write three-bar phrases or write it with a 3/2 meter or something to accommodate the tune. But he didn't.

Perhaps it’s not a major point or even a fault (unless you know and prefer the original – is there any law saying that Tchaikovsky had to maintain the original structure of the song? There’s no copyright infringement, here), but it compares one approach to the other: between Balakirev who was not bound by European Conventions no matter how often he used them in this or other works, and Tchaikovsky who, consciously or not, was something of a synthesis between the Russian Nationalist with a deep love of his heritage and the European Cosmopolitan intent on making Russian music understandable outside the realm of his own culture.

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One further quote, from a letter to Mme. von Meck after she had told him about her emotional, ecstatic response to his music, almost as if she was drunk on it.

“There is one thing in your letter with which I cannot agree in the least – your view on music. I particularly dislike the way in which you compare music with a form of intoxication. I think this is quite wrong. A man has recourse to wine in order to stupefy himself and produce an illusion of well-being and happiness. But this dream costs him very dear! The reaction is generally terrible. But in any case wine can only bring a momentary oblivion of all our troubles – no more. Has music a similar effect? Music is no illusion but rather a revelation. Its triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find in no other sphere; and the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement to life. Music enlightens and delights us. It is extremely difficult to analyse and define the process of musical enjoyment but it has nothing in common with intoxication… But when all is said and done, this is only a matter of words. If we both look upon the enjoyment of music from opposite points of view, at least one thing is certain: our love of it is equally strong, and that is sufficient for me. I am glad you apply the word ‘divine’ to the art to which I have dedicated my life.”

- Dr. Dick


  1. Anonymous12:05 PM

    Great blog. Edutainment at its best. Nicely written. Thanks.

    Just to say that the Birch Tree song is used by Balakirev in his (1st) Overture on Three Russian Themes from 1858 and not in his 2nd Overture on Russian Themes from 1863/64 (aka 'Russia').

    Thanks again,


    1. Thank you - and thanks for catching that (which is now corrected).