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La quatrième symphonie de Tchaïkovski

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Formal Analysis: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in the early summer of 1840 in the small town of Votkinsk, Russia. Born into a family with a history of military service, and in a country with little or no musical education system, the odds were stacked against Tchaikovsky from a young age. Although he was trained in the piano as a child, it was not until his early twenties that the St Petersburg Conservatory opened and he began his studies in music, having graduated as a civil servant. There, he undertook a musical education that began his life as a great composer, during which he composed a great number of masterpieces, including his Fourth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was dedicated to his patroness, Nadezha von Meck, who had been closely associated with him up until now. This was a very significant motion for Tchaikovsky to make, as it expressed that von Meck was more than just his Patroness but rather, his artistic partner. He described it as ‘their symphony’ and one that would be full of thought and intense emotion.[1] It was written shortly after the end of a catastrophic marriage to a former student of his, at a time when he was struggling with severe depression and his sexual identity. As a result, the music is at times, frantic, powerful and underlined with an air heaviness[2]. Divided into four movements, this is clearly demonstrated in the first movement of the Symphony, a section which is long and complicated, but often acclaimed as one of Tchaikovsky’s most important writings.[3] 

The symphony is scored for double winds, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and percussion, which is used exclusively in the final movement. The opening, Andante sostenuto begins in 3/4 time in the key of F minor, and introduces us to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fate Motif’. Tchaikovsky describes fate as not something wonderful, but something that is always hanging over our shoulders, something that is indicative of reality[4]. The fate motif is played by the horns and bassoons (b.1-6) and features repeated notes in Ab flat and triplets, emphasizing the heaviness of the theme. This material is then extended by the upper brass and woodwind whilst the lower brass adds more depth to the music, playing longer crotchet notes under the main line of melody which solidifies the music into syncopated chords. In b. 13, a sudden fortissimo chord interrupts the fate motif, and is followed by a short silence. This action repeats itself, before moving into a short period of decrescendo in the horns, playing the same ‘fate’ material (b. 15), underlined by chords in the strings. The introduction ends with a change in orchestration to the clarinet and bassoons playing a melody reminiscent of the fate motive, heavily featuring Db and C. These two notes hint at and help build the melody of the subsequent section, the first theme of the exposition.

The first theme begins at b. 27 and the main melody is taken up by the strings in F minor. The time signiature changes to 9/8 and above the score is written Moderato con Anima, and to be played as a waltz. However, it is not a grounded waltz that we would typically recognise, but rather sounds anxious and nervous. The offbeat quaver chords (b. 28-35) played by the viola and double bass emphasize this feeling of unease before developing into a much more frantic and repetitive series of repeated syncopated rhythms, using quavers and semiquavers. Orchestrationally, the first theme develops in tone and depth incredibly swiftly, with the entire orchestra playing tutti as early as b. 41, where there is a swell in the music through use of crescendo. The music continues in this frenzied fashion, building through clever use of dynamics and accidentals, particularly in the strings (b. 81). A short bridge and transition section introduces the second theme, beginning at b. 105. It features a short period of antiphonal dialogue in a major modulation between the clarinet and bassoon, before the bassoon begins the transition. At b. 107, there is a ritardando as the bassoon takes up the main melody to transition to the second subject, which begins at b. 116.

The second subject, sometimes described as a dreamlike section, in Tchaikovsky’s’ own words is ‘a sweet and gentle day-dream’[5]. It is intended to remove us from the heaviness of the opening theme and more importantly, to take us away from the omnipresence of fate. He does this by changing to a major key at the beginning of b. 116, changing the tempo to andante and allowing the clarinet to take up the melody line. This section has a hint of playfulness as the clarinet takes the melody, but every time there is a pause, it is answered by several other woodwind instruments playing a descending motif (b.117). This melody is accompanied by chords in the strings. The clarinet theme is then extended in a way by the cellos who take the melody around b. 122. The woodwinds continue their descending motivic movement above this, but no longer as the focus of the piece. In doing this, Tchaikovsky continues to build up a wall of sound intended to remove the listener from the dark tone of the opening theme. At b. 134, the violins and timpani enter the piece in the key of B major, playing a soft melody that is largely based around a four-note cell. In doing this, Tchaikovsky develops a far removed and far more waltzy feel than was present in the first section, and makes use of drastic dynamic changes (b. 176) and the reintroduction of brass to keep the listener’s attention. We are then jolted from the dream by the return of ‘fate’ in the development section at b. 193.

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