It's often joked that Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies: No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. Or, as others put it, he wrote one symphony three times, since they're all Fate-dominated and similar in character and content.Dick's article continues here: http://dickstrawser.blogspot.com/2011/01/tchaikovskys-4th-symphony-up-close.html
This post is the first in a series about each of these three symphonies: this one, more of a prelude to the set, contains background information about the composer and his historical context at the time he was composing the 4th. You can read about the 5th Symphony here, and about the 6th, here.
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Neither Tchaikovsky nor his 4th Symphony really need much in the way of “explanation” for a concert-goer to be able to enjoy the music. In these “Up-Close & Personal” posts, I’m usually looking for something behind the music, something that was going on in the composer’s life at the time the music was written or maybe about the times it was written in, whether that impact is direct or seemingly indirect. You can always argue that a work of art stands independently of any of the extraneous and technical details involved in its creation, but you can also argue that a work of art is something you can come to time and time again and each time discover something new, something that may make you listen to it in a different way or appreciate it from a slightly different angle, that the more you know about it the more you can appreciate it.
If you’re not familiar with the events of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he wrote this symphony – his disastrous marriage and the voluminous correspondence with the rather mysterious Nadezhda von Meck – you can read about that in Part 2 of this post. There are some other ideas I’d like to look at, for now.
Tchaikovsky is a Russian composer which, to an American listener, may seem obvious but actually implies a number of often conflicting ideas. It also implies a debate similar to that around Aaron Copland and the “American Sound” – how much of what we identify as the “Russian Sound” is really what we think of as being Tchaikovsky’s sound? What is it that makes Russian music sound Russian? When I asked a famous Soviet-era sociologist this question back in the ‘70s, she thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know – perhaps the long cold winters?”
Culturally, putting it into a glib nutshell, there are at least two Russias. As a political nation, it has been on the edge of Europe and never really a part of the general European culture. As a geographical entity, it straddles both Europe and Asia and much of its ethnic and social back-history is more Asiatic than European. While there are people who had always lived in the area we think of as Russia, much of its history was crystallized first by Scandinavian migrants who set up ancient kingdoms and converted to Christianity, then by Asians ranging from the Tatars and Mongols who conquered them. A long ingrained xenophobia aside, the lack of trade routes to connect them with Western Europe and the lack of a viable marketplace for European goods created little need for contact between these cultures until the 18th Century when one of these rulers – known to us as Peter the Great but not considered “Great” by the Russians themselves – forcibly turned his backward empire toward the West, imposing on them European attitudes and customs after conquering a miserable stretch of swampland where he built a grand city that, within a few generations, created a seemingly artificial world of wealthy aristocrats living in a mirror image of the royal courts of France and Germany while the greater percentage of Russians lived in a peasant culture of extreme poverty. There was little else, then, in between.
A century after Peter the Great built his new imperial capital St. Petersburg, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. At that time, few if any aristocrats spoke Russian. The language of the court was French, the literature and theater they enjoyed was in French. Much of the architecture of Peter the Great’s brand new city was the result of Italian architects trying to encompass something that looked Russian combined with something they were familiar with. Much of the music the aristocrats listened to was written and performed by Italian-born musicians who began teaching Russian-born musicians how to write and play in a European style. Even in Tchaikovsky’s youth a generation after 1812, there were still no Russian music schools: everybody was an amateur who studied privately with musicians imported either from France or Italy.
The “first” Russian composer (or at least the first one to be recognized as one), Mikhail Glinka, generally referred to as the “father” of Russian music, learned the rudiments of music and composition by way of correspondence with a theory teacher in Berlin, not by studying with a composer first-hand or by attending a school. Another important composer with a national awareness, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, learned not directly from Glinka but essentially by borrowing his notes.
In the mid-19th Century, the Russian musician Anton Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists of his day, usually placing 2nd to Franz Liszt, but as a composer he was too German for the Russians and too Russian for the Germans. He was too much of a Futurist for the Conservatives and, for the Futurists like Liszt and Wagner, too conservative. As a Jew who’d converted as a child to the Russian Orthodox church, he was also regarded as a Christian by Jews and as a Jew by Christians, therefore, as he put it, “neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.”
In 1862, Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai opened the first music school in Russia – first in St. Petersburg and then another in Moscow – making a point that courses would be taught in Russian, not in French (one grand lady retorted “Music in Russian? That’s a novel idea!”).
Tchaikovsky, who had discovered classical music as a child through a music-box reproduction of some Mozart pieces, wanted to become a musician but lacking any chance of good training ended up going into law. After becoming a law clerk, he decided it was too boring and he joined Rubinstein’s newly opened conservatory as one of its first students. He did well enough upon graduation, grounded in solid European-style training but without much practical experience, he was immediately set up as a teacher in the new Moscow school.
This was all happening around the same time young composers gathering around Mily Balakirev began formulating ideas about creating an authentic Russian musical style. They became known as “The Russian Five” or “The Mighty Handful” and their attitude about what Russian music should be was directly opposed to Rubinstein’s.