My wife and I recently attended our second performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This time, the featured work was Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, with an opening program of choral songs written by Peter Lieberson and performed by mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, which were adapted from the poetry of celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Lieberson wrote these songs as a sort of tribute to his wife Lorraine. The songs were beautiful and highlighted the melancholy vibe of Neruda’s poetry, as well as Lieberson’s devotion to his true love. But this was merely an appetizer for the next piece.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor is a towering, terrifying masterpiece. It is made from ash and molten rock, scraped from a landscape of fire. The work is said to represent fate and the disillusionment that one acquires by recognizing the true nature of the human condition. Or in the composer’s words: “…all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness …” Tchaikovsky, like most Romantic composers, sought to inject his symphonic work with emotions and ideas from his own life. With this in mind, the work gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of a genius during his most mature creative phase. He leaves no stone un-turned; no technique goes unused. This work was written by a man who put everything he had into his creations. This work is so complex that it took years for musicologists to accept it.
The opening movement (andante) is a terrific musical beast. It opens with a dramatic A-flat phrase from the horns, all playing in unison. When you really absorb this short phrase, in all it’s brassy glory, it sounds like the voice of God. Then there are a couple of huge pauses after massive, full-orchestra chords. It is dramatic in the extreme. The movement also contains a couple of complete pauses, where the whole orchestra rips a chord out of the air and lets it hang there, like a frozen thunderbolt. It is impossible to understand how shocking this movement must have seemed when the work was first performed. There’s a descending, spiraling feel to this section that must surely have given people vertigo or whiplash, possibly both. With this opening volley of dynamic fireworks, the composer sets the stage for rest of this masterpiece. It ends with another terrifying blast of the A-flat, like a reminder of the Almighty.
The second movement (adantino) highlights one of Tchaikovsky’s favourite instruments: the oboe. The melodies develop in long, slow phrases, even though the tempo has increased. This section is traditionally understood to represent to idea of grief, but such a one-dimensional emotional designation doesn’t capture the complexity of emotion. From the liquid notes of the oboe, we feel the depth of Tchaikovsky’s wordless sorrow. The strings come in with one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed, adding a wider context to this individual pain. The strings neutralize the pain with hope.
The third movement (scherzo) features the strings playing entirely in pizzicato, which is like the musical equivalent of starlight: delicate pinpoints of beauty that seem like they would be crushed by a light breeze. The amazing thing about this movement is that even with all it’s microscopic rhythms, it still has some (relatively) huge dynamics. There are phrases that rise and fall away without any vanishing point, like waves on an open ocean. It’s so beautiful and fragile that you feel compelled to hold your breath.
After all the tiny sonic butterflies of the third movement, the final movement (allegro) returns us to the terrifying drama of the opening. Percussion plays a large role in this movement as well, with thundering drums and crashing symbols. With this final whirlwind of notes and sounds, Tchaikovsky has alchemized all of his emotions into a marble tower, a solid glass sculpture, a mighty and immovable object. He has erected his tower to the gods. He has finally beaten Fate at it’s own game, vanquishing the demons of age and achieving immortality. The mountains had fallen and now there was only sound, ringing through space and time without end.