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8.555714 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 / Romeo and Juliet
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 • Romeo and Juliet Overture


Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studies there in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official career.

For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality caused obvious difficulties, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous breakdown.

Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

Tchaikovsky's sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise, as sudden deaths will, to contemporary speculation and has provoked further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open scandal even in court circles. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair, or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.

The story of the tragic lovers Romeo and Juliet hardly needs repetition. Tchaikovsky, in his fantasy overture of 1869, revised in 1870 at the suggestion of Balakirev, and finally once more in 1880, makes no attempt to follow the events as they occur in Shakespeare's play. The final version of the work was dedicated to Balakirev, at whose instigation the task had first been undertaken. There is the solemnity of Friar Laurence, whose well-intentioned intervention is the indirect cause of the tragedy, a turbulent principal theme suggesting the traditional enmity of the houses of Montague and Capulet, and a sensuous melody expressing the love of Romeo and Juliet. The overture is in tripartite sonata form, the exposition, with its principal thematic material, followed by a central development and a final recapitulation, in which, after the conflict of the themes of hatred and love, comes death.

It has been suggested that the Romeo and Juliet overture had to some extent reflected Tchaikovsky's feelings for the fifteen-year-old Eduard Zak, the cousin of a student of his at the Conservatory, who subsequently, in 1873, committed suicide. Whatever the truth of this, the fourth of Tchaikovsky's six symphonies was written during a time of the greatest personal difficulty. Completed in early January 1878, it had its first performance in Moscow six weeks later. In May and early June the previous year Tchaikovsky had finished the sketches of the whole work. It was early in May that he had responded to a letter from Antonina Milyukova, who had studied briefly at the Conservatory and now avowed her love for him, threatening suicide if he refused her. Influenced perhaps by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the subject of a new opera he now had in mind, he proposed to her. On 18 July he married: by 7 August he had left for his brother-in-law's estate at Kamenka to escape from a wife to whom he had taken an invincible aversion. By the end of September, after attempted suicide, his marriage was at an end, and in October he left Russia to find relief in travel. Even in these extraordinary circumstances work on the symphony continued, and its first performance was given in Moscow under the direction of Nikolay Rubinstein and attended by Nadezhda von Meck, to whom it was dedicated, but in the composer's absence.

In a letter to Mme von Meck Tchaikovsky suggested, with various reservations about the difficulty of expressing musical thoughts in words, a programme for the symphony. The seed of the whole work lay in the opening theme, representing Fate, a threatening sword of Damocles, an invincible force to which one can only resign oneself and languish in vain, shown in the melody based on the descending scale that follows the ominous introduction. As despair grows, he suggests that there may be refuge in daydreams, represented by the clarinet melody that forms the second subject, immediately followed by the bright human image of joy. Reality and Fate intervene to shatter the illusion. Life is a continuing alternation of harsh reality and dreams of happiness. In the second movement Tchaikovsky sees the sad weariness of evening, in which past happiness and past trouble may be remembered, a sense of bitter sweetness, reflected in the opening oboe melody that returns in the first violins after a contrasted central section. The Scherzo, with its plucked strings, suggests fleeting images that hurry past in one's imagination after a glass or two of wine, peasants drinking, a street song, and then a distant band of soldiers passing, very Russian scoring for woodwind and then for brass, before the plucked strings resume their rapid progress and the images recur. The last movement proposes an answer to depression in the company of others and in the enjoyment of the common people. The ebullient first theme is contrasted with a secondary melody, a Russian folk-song. One's mood begins to change, but Fate brings a reminder of reality. Yet melancholy can disappear in the happiness of others. He adds that the symphony is an echo of his own feelings of the previous winter, however inadequate his verbal expression of them.

Keith Anderson


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