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The programme of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4

October 10, 2008

In this extract from a letter to Nadezhda von Meck Tchaikovsky outlines the programme of his Symphony No 4 (1878).

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, beyond question the main idea. This is Fate, the fatal force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized…..One must submit to it and to futile yearnings. The gloomy, despairing feeling grows stronger and more burning. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and plunge into dreams? O, joy! At last a sweet and tender vision appears. Some bright, gracious human form passes and beckons somewhere….. Little by little, dreams have completely enveloped the soul. All that was gloomy, joyless is forgotten. It is here, it is here, happiness! No! These were dreams, and Fate awakens us harshly. Thus, life is a perpetual alternation between grim reality and transient dreams and reveries of happiness. There is no haven. Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.

The second movement of the symphony expresses another phase of depression. This is the 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…..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.

The third movement does not express any definite sensations. It consists of capricious arabesques, elusive apparitions that pass through the imagination when one has drunk a little wine and feels the first stage of intoxication. The soul is neither merry nor gloomy. One is thinking of nothing; the imagination is liberated, and for some reason sets off painting strange pictures. Among them one remembers the picture of a roistering peasant and street song. Then somewhere in the distance a military parade passes. These are completely disconnected images, like those which flit through one’s head as one is falling asleep. They have nothing to do with reality; they are strange, wild and incoherent.

Fourth movement. If you find no cause for joy within yourself, look for it in others. Go to the people…..A picture of festive popular rejoicing. Scarcely has one forgotten oneself and been carried away at the sight of someone else’s pleasure than indefatigable Fate returns again and reminds you of yourself. But others pay no heed to you. They do not even turn round, they do not glance at you and do not notice how lonely and gloomy you are. Oh, how gay they are! How lucky they are that all their feelings are simple and spontaneous. Reproach yourself and do not say that all the world is sad. Simple but strong joys do exist. Rejoice in other’s rejoicing. To live is still bearable.

From a letter by Peter Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck. Quoted in John Warrack, Tchaikovsky, Hamish Hamilton, 1973, pp. 134-136.

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