Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4

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Full program notes:


Johannes Brahms

Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Opus 102 (Double Concerto)

Brahms wrote his Double Concerto in the summer of 1887 at Thun, Switzerland. The first official performance took place on October 18, 1887, with the violinist Joseph Joachim, cellist Robert Hausmann and the composer at the podium with the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne.

Robert Hausmann, the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, liked to recount how Brahms, hearing him play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto for him at his apartment shortly before his death, had said with some chagrin that had he known it was possible to write such a good cello concerto, he himself would have done it long ago.

In 1884 Hausmann had in fact urged Brahms to do just that, “or at least [to produce] a companion piece” to the E-minor Cello Sonata. Brahms did not write a concerto for Hausmann, but in 1886 he offered some consolation in the form of the F-major Sonata, with the Double Concerto for him and Joachim coming along a year later.

rebuilding a friendship

To be sure, for both musical and personal reasons Joachim was the more urgent cause behind this project. Brahms and Joachim had become friends in 1853, and over the years, Joachim had given the first performance of the Violin Concerto and about half of Brahms’ chamber works.

But the long friendship was clouded in 1884 by the divorce proceedings between Joachim and his wife, the contralto Amalie Weiss. Joachim had always been madly jealous, even though his wife’s behavior gave him no reason to be, and now he suspected her of having an affair. Brahms, sure of her innocence, wrote her a sympathetic letter that subsequently convinced the court of her innocence as well. Joachim, hurt and enraged by what he regarded as Brahms’ treachery, broke off relations. The Italians have a sensible proverb, imprinted these days on ashtrays and tea towels, that advises, “Fra moglie e marito, non mettere ditto”— Don’t put even one finger between husband and wife.

Brahms worked hard to repair the friendship, and the most significant of his efforts was to tender this Double Concerto as a peace offering. It is of course odd—but then this is Brahms, which means the situation could not be uncomplicated—that a composer should write a double concerto as a peace offering for a violinist but make the cello part the more prominent and rewarding.

In any event, he told Joachim in a letter that he had been unable to resist composing the work, that nothing about it really mattered to him except Joachim’s attitude toward it. For three and a half strained years, Brahms had been writing to Joachim and sending him scores, and Joachim had continued to play Brahms’ music but refused to resume the friendship. This time, however, he succumbed. The friendship was at least functionally restored, with both men reverting to the intimate du and complete cordiality, but their old closeness was gone for good.

Brahms’ Double Concerto, which turned out to be his last orchestral work, was written for two musicians who had been the twin anchors of a great string quartet for eight years: it takes a chamber-music approach to make the piece really work. With its muscular, sometimes stern first movement, tender and subtly lyric Andante, and flavorful finale, the Double Concerto offers rich rewards.

allegro. The orchestra begins forcefully but on an odd harmonic slant, and it stops very quickly, as though choked off in mid-phrase. The cello, directed to play “in the manner of a recitative but always in tempo,” picks up the orchestra’s last three notes and uses them as a springboard from which to launch a powerfully assertive 22-measure solo. The orchestra responds with a musing phrase for woodwinds, and the solo violin, when it enters, continues to spin out that dream. A triplet passage descending through two octaves awakens the cello’s attention, and from here the solo becomes an increasingly excited duet.

The four bars with which the orchestra begins the concerto pose a conflict between the basic duple meter (the first two measures) and rhythmically dissonant triplets (the next two). This tension is an important feature throughout the work. In the double cadenza, triplets gradually give way to multiples of two, and this emergence from rhythmic dissonance into clarity is a crucial part of what gives this page its energy. Urged in by a series of thrusting chords in multiple stops, the orchestra returns, playing the same phrase with which it had begun but now firmly placed in A minor. This is our first sense of an unmistakable downbeat. Introductory gestures are over.

The exposition is based for the most part on the forceful opening theme and the more yielding one that introduced the violin. When the soloists enter again, the cello once more takes the lead, this time with a lyric variant of the opening theme. The development is active indeed. It is also virtuosic, with wide- ranging arpeggiated passages and a sequence of the maddest trills since Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. The recapitula- tion, this too heralded by a series of hugely sonorous seven and eight-note chords for the two soloists, is, as always in Brahms, full of new inventions and new perspectives. One detail in this movement should get special mention, and that is Brahms’ use of the two solo instruments in octaves. He is aware of its effectiveness, as any composer would be, but unlike most composers he is possessed by an almost fanatic sense of economy in such things; the octave passages therefore are few and brief and, as a result, hair-raising.

andante. After the storms of the Allegro, the slow movement—in D major—is gentle. A romantic horn-call and its woodwind echo cue a glorious, subtly limned melody. It is first played not just by the two soloists in octaves, but, much of the way, with the orchestra joining in as well. The refinement with which Brahms maneuvers the orchestra in and out of that melody is one of its loveliest features. The song itself is folklike, but later both melody and texture become more elaborate. Harmonies range widely, and an extraordinarily difficult double cadenza brings us back to another journey through the opening melody. The orchestration is amazingly inventive and diverse throughout, and the movement ends in a reminiscing coda that is a moment of exquisite poetry.

vivace non troppo. The finale is another in Brahms’ gypsy vein. It is also full of humor; for instance, in the violin’s inclination to disrupt the cello’s attempt to bring back the opening tune. Toward the end, with the tempo momentarily slowed, the music becomes surprisingly delicate and lyric, with closely worked filigree passages for the soloists, but the final page is all strength and energy.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission. 

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36

“Our symphony progresses,” Tchaikovsky wrote in late summer 1877. The other half of “our” was Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who had come into Tchaikovsky’s life some eight months before, in December 1876. She was a wealthy woman, recently widowed, tough, given to organizing things and people. She loved Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession and made contact with her idol. Almost at once they found themselves embarked on a voluminous, exhaustive, intimate correspondence. And 500 rubles were moved every month from the vast Meck account into Tchaikovsky’s fragile one, bringing him years of blessed financial security.

an unusual friendship

Clearly, her feelings for Tchaikovsky and his music were on some level erotic, but she seems to have been unwilling to have that feeling transmuted into sexual reality. She insisted that they must never meet, and with that liberating condition
in effect, their mutually nourishing friendship, so strange and so understandable, lasted nearly 14 years. Being rich as well as neurotic, Mme. von Meck was doubly entitled to caprice, and in a maggoty moment she broke contact, seemingly without warning—at least with no warning Tchaikovsky understood. By 1890, when that happened, Tchaikovsky no longer needed her money, but he never got over the hurt of the sudden abandonment.

It was during the first year of his friendship with Mme. Von Meck that he took the most foolish step of his life: he got married, succumbing to the advances of a former pupil of his. He tried to be as candid with her about his homosexuality as the manners and the permissible language of 1877 allowed, but she seems to have had no idea what he was talking about. They married, he fled, and with the massive support of relatives and friends he got his life back on track.

Tchaikovsky began the Fourth Symphony soon after Nadezhda Filaretovna’s arrival on the scene; he completed it in the aftermath of the catastrophic marriage. He realized at once the significance of Mme. von Meck’s entrance into his life and knew that he wanted to dedicate his new symphony to her. He wrote to her on February 24, 1878, just two days after the premiere was conducted in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein: “In my heart of hearts I feel sure it is the best thing I have done so far.”

“things which arise in the heart”

At one point, Mme. von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what their symphony “was about.” Tchaikovsky shilly-shallied, explaining that the answer was to be found in the music itself and not in words about the music. Nonetheless, he did oblige at length with a “program” in which the opening fanfare is identified with “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

Tchaikovsky had a rather more illuminating exchange about the Fourth Symphony with his friend the composer Sergei Taneyev. “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. It would only appear ludicrous and raise a smile. But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He continued: “Please don’t imagine that I want to swagger before you with profound emotions and lofty ideas....In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not of course copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.”

The critic Hans Keller has pointed out that Tchaikovsky’s opening fanfare serves as a structural marker in much the same way as Beethoven’s famous motto. He suggests that the dimensions as well as the unusual form of the symphony made Tchaikovsky feel the musical necessity of such a marker.

To the end of his life, Tchaikovsky thought himself clumsy about form. Let us say that he could be painfully academic and astoundingly adventurous. His moments of great daring yielded some compelling successes: the tone poem The Voyevoda, with its powerfully compressed coda, is a little-known instance, and the Symphonie pathétique a famous and much loved one.

the music: a great adventure

The Fourth Symphony is also among the great adventures and the great successes. It all has to do with harmonic design, with gravitational pull. In short, Tchaikovsky goes to surprising keys at surprising times.

andante sostenuto—moderato con anima. In the first movement, having emphatically set up F minor as a center of gravity in the introduction and the keening start of the Moderato, he declines to return to that key until this long movement is almost nine-tenths over. That moment is marked by the fourth appearance of the “fate” fanfare, and it is more powerful for the extreme delay.

Tchaikovsky sets up a network of harmonic reference across the entire symphony. To cite a grand example: “recapitulation” usually means a return to the original key as well as a return to all the themes. Tchaikovsky recapitulates the themes, all right, but he holds off bringing back the tonic key, F minor, until the coda; instead he sets the recapitulation in D minor, a key hitherto untouched. But the finale of the symphony is in F major, closely related to F minor by virtue of sharing the keynote F, but equally close to that surprising D minor.

andantino in modo di canzona. The burden of Tchaikovsky’s musical and extramusical arguments is in the large, brooding first movement with its latent—and not so latent—waltz content. What follows is picturesque support. The Andantino is a melancholy song introduced by the oboe, that most melancholic of wind instruments. Its impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominate the first movement.

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky was especially proud of his novel instrumental scheme: the perpetual pizzicato and the assignment of distinctive material to each group in the orchestra. Once the symphony was in circulation, he was annoyed because it was always the “cute” scherzo that made the biggest hit.

finale: allegro con fuoco. The principal tune of the Finale, also introduced with an odd harmonic obliqueness, is a folk song, There Stood a Little Birch. The “fate” fanfare intrudes once more, making a musical as well as a programmatic point, after which the symphony is free to rush to its emphatic conclusion. This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff