Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky Research
Jump to: navigation, search

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (TH 27 ; ČW 24), was begun in the spring of 1877 and completed in December the same year.


The Symphony is scored for an orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A, B-flat), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Movements and Duration

There are four movements:

I. Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima (F minor, 424 bars)
II. Andantino in modo di canzona (B-flat minor, 304 bars)
III. Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato. Allegro (F major, 414 bars)
IV. Finale. Allegro con fuoco (F major, 293 bars).

A complete performance lasts around 40 to 45 minutes.


The first references to the composition of the Fourth Symphony are encountered in letters from Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck dating from early May 1877. In a letter of 1/13 May, he wrote that he was now: "... engrossed in a symphony, which I began to write during the winter... Any other type of work would weigh heavily upon me at the moment—in other words the sort of work which requires a certain frame of mind... I find that now my nerves are frayed and irritable when I am deflected from the symphony, which progress with some difficulty" [1].

By 3/15 May the first three movements had been written. "I have prepared the first three movements in sketch form, and have set about the finale", the composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, "but because lately I have had no inclination to work, I shall set it aside until the summer" [2]. Yet on 27 May/8 June, Tchaikovsky told her: "The symphony is finished, i.e. in outline. By the end of the summer it should be scored" [3].

In fact the instrumentation of the Symphony was not begun until August 1877. In May and June, the composer worked on his opera Yevgeny Onegin; then he travelled to Saint Petersburg and Kiev in connection with his wedding arrangements. He arrived at Kamenka on 30 July/12 August, but did not immediately start work there: "I would be lying if I said that I have returned to my normal state of mind. This is insufferable... and singularly disappointing. I have decided not to do any further work. Work frightens and oppresses me... Hopefully my urge to work will return" [4].

However, it was not long before Tchaikovsky began to orchestrate the Symphony [5], and on 12/24 August he could report: "Our symphony is progressing a little. I will take particular care when orchestrating the first movement—it is very long and complicated; yet it is also, in my opinion, the best movement. The remaining three are much simpler, and orchestrating them will be very enjoyable. The Scherzo employs a new orchestral effect, which I have designed myself" [6].

The instrumentation of the first movement was delayed. On 27 August/8 September, Tchaikovsky told his brother Anatoly that he was working on the piano score of the opera Yevgeny Onegin [7].

On 12/24 September, Tchaikovsky reported from Moscow to Nadezhda von Meck: "I have scored the first movement of the symphony" [8]. However, it is apparent from the composer's subsequent letters that the instrumentation of the first movement was still unfinished at this point.

On 24 September/6 October, for the sake of his health [following the end of his marriage], Tchaikovsky left Moscow for Saint Petersburg, and eventually abroad. In a letter of 16/28 October, he asked Pyotr Jurgenson to send on to Clarens the copy-book containing the sketches of the Symphony, which he had left behind in Moscow [9].

"I have done a little work, and now I can say with some certainty that our symphony will be finished by December at the latest...", he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 25 October/6 November 1877 [10].

The package with the sketches arrived in Switzerland when Tchaikovsky had already moved on to Rome, and the sketches did not reach him until 11/23 November. "You can imagine how anxious I was!", wrote Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, "... if the symphony should have been lost, I would not have had the strength to write it all out again from memory!" [11].

Tchaikovsky did not take up the orchestration straight away, presumably because he did not want to interrupt the work he had already started on the opera Yevgeny Onegin [12].

From December onwards, Tchaikovsky worked on the instrumentation of the Symphony almost without interruption. From his surviving letters we can follow the course of work in detail:

  • 2/14 December: "Tomorrow I shall throw myself into the symphony..." [13].
  • 3/15 December: "... in the morning set about my symphony" [14].
  • 4/16 December: "I sat, immersed in the instrumentation of the symphony..." [15]. "This is the second day that I have worked on my symphony, and I am working very assiduously" [16].
  • 5/17 December: The instrumentation of the symphony "... comes to me with great difficulty. I wrote from morning to dinner time, until in the evening I was so tired that I could do no more" [17]. "... I have worked diligently on my symphony all day" [18].
  • 6/18 December: "The first movement is almost ready. I can say with confidence that this is my best composition" [19]. "I'm very satisfied with my symphony, which is undoubtedly the best that I've written, but it's not coming to me without hard work, particularly the first movement" [20].
  • 7/19 December: "I'm probably near the end of the symphony, on which I've worked with great vigour" [21].
  • 9/21 December: "Not only am I occupying myself assiduously with scoring our symphony, I am utterly absorbed in this work. None of my previous orchestral works ever cost me such labour, yet I have never felt such a love for one of my own pieces. I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this work. At first I wrote largely for the sake of completing the symphony, knowing how difficult this task would eventually be. But little by little it captured my enthusiasm, and now my difficulties have fallen away... perhaps I am mistaken, but I think that this symphony is something out of the ordinary, and that it is the best thing I have done so far... Now I... can wholly devote myself to work in the knowledge that I am bringing forth something which, in my opinion, shall not be forgotten..." [22].
  • 10/22 December: "The first movement of the symphony is coming to an end. Today I worked extremely hard, and I'm very tired" [23].
  • 11/23 December: "Today I finished the most difficult movement of the symphony—the first" [24]. On the fair copy of the manuscript full score of the first movement is the note: "Venice 23(11) December 1877".
  • 12/24 December: "Today I set about the second half of the symphony's second movement. The work becomes easier with each hour that passes. I hope that, in spite of the interruption, the whole thing will be finished before our New Year" [25]. "When I wrote the opera [Yevgeny Onegin], I did not experience the same feeling as with the symphony. There I took a chance: perhaps it will do, or maybe nothing will come of it. But while writing the symphony I'm fully aware that it is a composition out of the ordinary, and far more perfect in form than anything I've written previously" [26].

The date on the manuscript full score of the second movement indicates that the instrumentation was completed on 13/25 December 1877.

  • 15/27 December: "The symphony is absorbing me so much, that I haven't the strength to tear myself away from it" [27]. "Finished the Scherzo. Very tired" [28]. The date on the manuscript of the third movement reads: "27/15 Dec 1877. Venezia".
  • 16/28 December: "There can be no question that in these two weeks my state of health, physically and mentally, has been excellent. A not inconsiderable factor in this has been my symphony, the work on which has filled me with enthusiasm... At the moment three movements are ready; I do not know how long I shall be busy with the remainder—but it seems to me that these three movements represent the crowning glory of all my musical achievements" [29].
  • 20 December 1877/1 January 1878: "In this symphony I have succeeded in writing something good—tomorrow I shall be reconciled to all former and future misfortunes" [30].

Work on the Symphony was interrupted for a few days by negotiations concerning Tchaikovsky's appointment to a delegation at the Paris International Exhibition ("I was preparing to start on the finale of the symphony today...") [31]. Tchaikovsky declined to go on this tour: "I cannot see people, I need to isolate myself from all the hustle and bustle [...] Peace, peace, peace and work—these are the only two things that I need now", he wrote to Nikolay Rubinstein, who had proposed his name for the delegation [32].

On 24 December/5 January, Tchaikovsky resumed the instrumentation of the Symphony: "This morning I set about my symphony, and worked all day; this is the reason that I am so tired...", he wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky the same day [33].

On 26 December/7 January, the composer reported: "Yesterday and today I sat, without rising, and today I have finished my dear symphony" [34]. This statement is corroborated by a note after the fourth movement of the manuscript score: "San Remo 7 Jan 1878 (26 Dec 1877)".

A few more days were devoted to "putting the final touches to the full score, which I shall take with me, so that in Milan I might obtain a metronome and insert the correct tempi". On 29 December/10 January, Tchaikovsky sent the full score to Moscow [35].

On finishing the Symphony, the composer wrote: "It seems to me that this is my best work. Of my two latest creations, i.e. the opera and the symphony, I favour the latter" [36]. "What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I... am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development..." [37].


In letters to Nadezhda von Meck and Sergey Taneyev, Tchaikovsky disclosed more about the content of the Fourth Symphony. In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 17 February/1 March 1878, he set out a detailed programme for his Fourth Symphony:

You asked me whether there is a definite programme to this symphony? Usually when this question is put to me about a symphonic work my answer is: none! Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer. How can one put into words the intangible sensations which one experiences when writing an instrumental work without a specific subject? This is a purely lyrical process. This is, fundamentally, an unburdening of the soul in music, with its essence distilled into sounds, in the same manner in which a lyrical poet expresses himself in verse. The only difference is that music has much more powerful means and a more subtle language with which to express thousands of different emotions and frames of mind. [...] In our symphony there is a programme, i.e. it is possible to express in words what it is trying to say, and to you, and only to you, I am able and willing to explain the meaning both of the whole and of the separate movements. Of course, I can do this only in general terms.
The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea:
0763 ex1.jpg
This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. It is an invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly.
0763 ex2.jpg
The bleak and hopeless feelings grow stronger and intense. Is it not better to escape from reality and to immerse oneself in dreams:
0763 ex3.jpg
Oh joy! Out of nowhere a sweet and gentle day-dream appears. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away:
0763 ex4.jpg
How wonderful! How distant the obsessive first theme of the allegro now sounds! Gradually the soul is enveloped by daydreams. Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. Here it is, here it is—happiness!
No! These were daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them:
0763 ex5.jpg
And thus all life is an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness... No haven exists... Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths. That, roughly, is the programme of the first movement.
The second movement of the symphony expresses another aspect of sadness. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one's toil, one sits alone with a book—but it falls from the hand. There come a whole host of memories. It is sad that so much is now in the past, albeit pleasant to recall one's youth. Both regretting the past, and yet not wishing to begin life over again. Life is wearisome. It is pleasant to rest and look around. Memories abound! Happy moments when the young blood boiled, and life was satisfying. There are also painful memories, irreconcilable losses. All this is now somewhere far distant. It is both sad, yet somehow sweet to be immersed in the past...
The third movement expresses no specific feeling. This is whimsical arabesques, vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication. The spirit is neither cheerful, nor sad. Thinking about nothing in particular, giving free rein to the imagination, which somehow begins to paint strange pictures... Amid these memories there suddenly comes a picture of drunken peasants and a street song... Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes. These are completely incoherent images which sweep through the head as one falls asleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are strange, wild, and incoherent...
The fourth movement. If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible fate appears again and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad. O, how they are enjoying themselves! How happy they are that all their feelings are simple and straightforward. Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Joy is a simple but powerful force. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.
That, my dear friend, is all I can explain to you about the symphony. Of course, this is vague and incomplete. But an intrinsic quality of instrumental music is that it does not yield to detailed analysis [...] Just as I was about to put the letter in an envelope, I re-read it and was horrified at the incoherence and inadequacy of the programme I sent to you. This is the first time in my life that I have attempted to translate musical thoughts and images into words, and I could not manage to do this adequately. I was severely depressed last winter when writing the symphony, and it serves as a faithful echo of what I was experiencing. But it is known as an echo. How can it be translated into a clear and coherent succession of words? I do not know how to do that. I have already forgotten so much. They remain general recollections of the passions and mysterious feelings that I experienced" [38].


The Fourth Symphony was performed for the first time in Moscow at the tenth concert of the Russian Musical Society on 10/22 February 1878, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, where it had great success. On 25 November/7 December the same year, the work was performed in Saint Petersburg at the fifth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Eduard Nápravník.

Other notable early performances included:

  • Paris, 15th Châtelet concert, 13/25 January 1880, conducted by Édouard Colonne
  • Pavlovsk, symphony concert, 29 August/10 September 1888, conducted by Julius Laube
  • Dresden, 5th Philharmonic Society concert, 8/20 February 1889, conducted by Tchaikovsky
  • New York, Metropolitan Opera House, Symphony Society concert, 20 January/1 February 1890, conducted by Walter Damrosch
  • Kiev, 2nd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 5/17 December 1890, conducted by Aleksandr Vinogradsky
  • London, Saint James's Hall, Philharmonic Society concert, 20 May/1 June 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky.

Critical Reception

Following the Saint Petersburg première, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote about the impression the Symphony had made on the public:

If ever a symphonic work produced a furore after its performance, then it was your symphony. After the first movement the applause was moderate—how should I say?—something like what is usually heard after the first movement of a Beethoven or Schumann symphony; after the second movement there was considerably more applause—such that Nápravník was even obliged to take a bow; after the Scherzo—a fff clamour, stamping and cries of "bis". Nápravník bowed once more... and the noise only intensified, until the conductor raised his baton. Then everyone fell silent until only your pizzicato could be heard ... After this, more cries, calls, bows by Nápravník, and so on. The end of the Finale was greeted with unanimous applause, calls and stamping of feet ... The performance was very lively, but in the last movement... breathtaking [39].

Responding to Sergey Taneyev, who wrote that "The trumpet fanfares which constitute the introduction, and which subsequently appear from time]] to time, the changes of tempo in the second subject—all these make one think that this is programme music..." [40], Tchaikovsky replied:

As to your remark that my symphony is programmatic, then I am in complete agreement. I just do not understand why you consider this to be a defect. It is the opposite that I fear—i.e. I should not wish symphonic works to flow from my pen that express nothing, and which consist of empty playing with chords, rhythms and modulations. My symphony is, of course, programmatic, but the programme is such that it is impossible to formulate in words. Such a thing would provoke ridicule and laughter. But is this not what a symphony, that is, the most lyrical of all musical foRussian Musical Society, ought to be? Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed? However, I must confess to you: in my naivety I imagined that the idea of the symphony was very clear, that in general outline its sense could be understood even without a programme. Please do not think that I am trying to plume myself in front of you with my depth of feelings and grandeur of thoughts that are not susceptible of verbal expression. I was not even seeking to express a new idea. In essence my symphony is an imitation of Beethoven's Fifth, that is, I was imitating not his musical thoughts, but the fundamental idea. [...] Furthermore, I'll add that there is not a note in this symphony (that is, in mine) which I did not feel deeply, and which did not serve as an echo of sincere impulses within my soul. A possible exception is the middle of the first movement, in which there are contrivances, seams, glued-together bits—in a word, artificiality [41].

All his life, Tchaikovsky retained a love for this symphony. At the end of 1878 he wrote: "I adore terribly this child of mine; it is one of only a few works with which I have not experienced disappointment" [42]. Ten years later, when referring to the symphony, he wrote "it turns out that not only have I not cooled towards it, as I have cooled towards the greater part of my compositions, but on the contrary, I am filled with warm and sympathetic feelings towards it. I don't know what the future may bring, but presently it seems to me that this is my best symphonic work" [43].


Tchaikovsky was very anxious that the Symphony should be published in the best possible way [44]. When dispatching the full score to Moscow, Tchaikovsky asked Jurgenson to entrust the piano arrangement to Sergey Taneyev or Karl Klindworth [45]. The next day he approached Taneyev with the same request, and the latter readily agreed [46]. However, this work was delayed until June 1878 because of a projected performance in Saint Petersburg, and Nikolay Rubinstein's intention to perform the Scherzo from the Symphony in Paris [47].

On 6/18 November 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "Our symphony is being printed" [48]. However, it was not until June 1879 that he checked the proofs of the full score and piano arrangement. In August that year, Taneyev's arrangement for piano duet was issued [49]. The full score did not appear in print until early September 1880 [50], and the orchestral parts were first issued in June 1888.

The full score of the Symphony was published in volume 16Б of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works, edited by Pavel Berlinsky (1949).


Tchaikovsky's manuscript score is now preserved in the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 58).


See: Symphony No. 4: Recordings


The Symphony No. 4 is dedicated (secretly) to Nadezhda von Meck—on the title page is the inscription: "Dedicated to my best friend" [51].

Related Works

The main theme of the Finale (movt. IV) is a variant of the folk-tune 'In the Field a Birch-Tree Stood' (Во поле береза стояла), which Tchaikovsky had harmonized as No. 9 in Set 2 of Mariya Mamontova's collection of Children's Songs on Russian and Ukrainian Tunes (1877).

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Letter 554 to Nadezhda von Meck, 1/13 May 1877.
  2. Letter 557 to Nadezhda von Meck, 3/15 May 1877.
  3. Letter 569 to Nadezhda von Meck, 27 May/8 June 1877.
  4. Letter 593 to Nadezhda von Meck, 2/14 August 1877.
  5. See Letter 594 to Nadezhda von Meck, 11/23 August 1877.
  6. Letter 595 to Nadezhda von Meck, 12/24 August 1877.
  7. See Letter 596 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 27 August/8 September 1877.
  8. Letter 601 to Nadezhda von Meck, 12/24 September 1877.
  9. Letter 620 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 25 October/6 November 1877.
  10. Letter 626 to Nadezhda von Meck, 25 October/6 November 1877.
  11. Letter 644 to Nadezhda von Meck, 11/23 November 1877.
  12. See Letter 621 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 17/29 October 1877, and Letter 1632 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 28 October/9 November 1877.
  13. Letter 670 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 December 1877.
  14. Letter 670 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 December 1877.
  15. Letter 676 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 4/16 December 1877.
  16. Letter 673 to Nadezhda von Meck, 4/16 December 1877.
  17. Letter 677 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 5/17 December 1877.
  18. Letter 678 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 5/17–7/19 December 1877.
  19. Letter 679 to Nadezhda von Meck, 6/18 December 1877.
  20. Letter 680 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 6/18 December 1877.
  21. Letter 681 to Sergey Taneyev, 7/19 December 1877.
  22. Letter 684 to Nadezhda von Meck, 9/21 December 1877.
  23. Letter 683 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 8/20–10/22 December 1877.
  24. Letter 686 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 11/23–14/26 December 1877.
  25. Letter 689 to Nadezhda von Meck, 12/24 December 1877.
  26. Letter 686 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 11/23–14/26 December 1877.
  27. Letter 690 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 15/27 December 1877.
  28. Letter 691 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 15/27–17/29 December 1877.
  29. Letter 692 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 December 1877.
  30. Letter 696 to Nadezhda von Meck, 20 December 1877/1 January 1878.
  31. See Letter 700 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 21 December 1877/2 January 1878.
  32. Letter 702 to Nikolay Rubinstein, 23 December 1877/4 January 1878.
  33. Letter 708 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 24 December 1877/5 January 1878–25 December 1877/6 January 1878.
  34. Letter 709 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 26 December 1877/7 January 1878.
  35. See Letter 711 to Nadezhda von Meck, 30 December 1877/11 January 1878.
  36. Letter 713 to Nikolay Rubinstein, 1/13 January 1878.
  37. Letter 711 to Nadezhda von Meck, 30 December 1877/11 January 1878.
  38. Letter 763 to Nadezhda von Meck, 17 February/1 March 1878.
  39. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 23 November/5 December–25 November/7 December 1878.
  40. Letter from Sergey Taneyev to the composer, 18/30 March 1878 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  41. Letter 799 to Sergey Taneyev, 27 March/8 April 1878.
  42. Letter 985 to Nadezhda von Meck, 26 November/8 December 1878.
  43. Letter 3572 to Nadezhda von Meck, 18/30 May 1888.
  44. See Letter 725 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 12/24 January 1878.
  45. See Letter 724 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 1/13 January 1878.
  46. See Letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878, and Taneyev's reply to Tchaikovsky, 8/20 November 1878.
  47. See Letter 1154 to Nadezhda von Meck, 14/26 April 1879.
  48. Letter 959 to Nadezhda von Meck, 6/18 November 1878.
  49. See Letter 1297 to Nadezhda von Meck, 25 September/7 October 1879.
  50. See Letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to Tchaikovsky, 6/18 September 1880 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  51. See Letter 574 to Nadezhda von Meck, 3/15 July 1877, and Letter 800 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 27 March/8 April 1878.