Saturday, December 10, 2005


Tchaikovsky: Fourth Symphony, F minor, Op.36

The Fourth Symphony, in F minor, Op.36, was composed 1877; first performed in Moscow, February 22, 1878, under Nicholas Rubinstein's direction.

Tchaikovsky admitted that the first Movement was "very complicated and long," and music critics generally concur in his estimate of it "as also the most important." The Symphony opens with a powerful, oracular Introduction in the horns and bassoons (afterward joined by trombones), later in the trumpets and wood-wind; it is not thematically related to the first Movement, but later it enters vitally into the texture of the Movement, and bursts forth again near the end of the Finale, with thrilling, and superbly unifying effect. Tchaikovsky's own words are: "The Introduction is the kernel, the chief thought of the whole Symphony." This first Movement is based solidly upon the classic sonata-allegro design, but contains one noteworthy digression: the structurally vital return of the principal Theme, at the beginning of the Recapitulation, is placed in a different key (D minor), and so shortened that this "keystone" of the form is reduced to but little more than an intimation of its presence. The Ground Motive in the drum, in the Second Part of the subordinate Theme, is extended unaltered through twenty-two measures.

The second (slow) Movement is an exquisite Canzona, tinged with sadness, but brightened with finely tempered contrasts. The form is First Rondo.

The third Movement (Scherzo) is an original experiment that never fails of its fine effect and hearty appeal. The three chief instrumental groups (Strings, Wood-Wind, and Brass) appear separately, alternating in distinct sections, somewhat after the arrangement of a Triple-choir, until near the end, where they unite. The strings are pizzicato (plucked) throughout, hence the superscription "pizzicato ostinato." The form is Song with Trio; the latter being so radically contrasted in its Fourth Part (in the Brass-choir) that one is tempted to infer a "Second Trio." This Fourth Part of the Trio, it will be noted, is practically identical with the beginning of the principal Division---but in augmented rhythm.

The Finale is a tumult of vivacious gaiety---as Tchaikovsky himself designates it: "the joy of seeing others happy and jolly." It offsets the tragedy of the first Movement and the sadness of the second; but the terrific intrusion of the fateful motive of the Introduction turns the mortal's thought to his own misery, if only a brief moment. The Russian folk-melody, though introduced very near the beginning, in the course of the principal Theme itself, is sufficiently individual to serve as a subordinate Theme. The rhythmic treatment of this popular tune is ingenious.

The acute listener will note the interesting similarity in the formation of the first melodic member of the chief Themes begins with a descending scale-line of four (or five) tones---likewise the subordinate Theme of the second and last Movements. It is unlikely that this was intentional, but the coincidence is unmistakable, and not without psychological moment.


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