Tonight in Glasgow and tomorrow in Edinburgh, the RSNO will play Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, one of the Russian composer’s bestknown and most popular works. It’s a thoroughgoing masterpiece, with four movements: the first, launched by mighty fanfares, which recur and which represent fate, is a brooding, turbulent and tempestuous piece of music. The second movement is all charm, melancholy and reflection.
For the third, Tchaikovsky came up with something novel that absolutely thrilled him: its main theme is entirely, and dazzlingly, played on pizzicato strings. And the explosive finale is sheer dynamite, with a Russian folk tune thrown into a cocktail that amounts to one of the most sensationally exciting, out-of-your-seat finales ever conceived by any composer.
Though the music has its critics in academe, the Fourth Symphony is a rocksolid, bulletproof masterpiece. It’s as straightforward as that.
Or is it? The Fourth was in fact written at the time of a nearincredible crisis in Tchaikovsky’s personal life. The symphony is very close to autobiography, and is certainly highly subjective.
Tchaikovsky was homosexual – gay seems an entirely inappropriate term for this anxiety-ridden and oftentortured soul. Further, as can be gleaned from his letters to his brother (also homosexual), he was promiscuous.
But Tchaikovsky was paranoid about his sexuality. Rumours about his inclinations and behaviour circulated in Russian society. The fear of exposure, and acute sensitivity about the shame that would fall on his family, led him to make an extraordinary decision. He determined to marry, or form some other permanent union, with a woman in the hope of stifling the rumours and gossip.
There was already one woman in his life, a wealthy widow, Natasha von Meck, who adored him and became his patroness for many years, on condition that they should never meet, an arrangement which suited him admirably.
Then, out of the blue, as his personal crisis was deepening, he received a letter from a young woman, Antonina Milyukova, declaring her love for him. He ignored it. She wrote him another two, in which she announced that if he wouldn’t at least meet her, she would commit suicide.
He agreed, proposed within a few days of their having met, and laid down his requirements: it was never to be consummated. She accepted and they married. It was a disaster waiting to happen. He loathed her and couldn’t take the pressure. He tried to kill himself and failed. All this time, he was writing the Fourth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky fled, had a nervous breakdown, and was in a coma for 48 hours. He was warned that his only hope was to get out of the marriage and get away. He did. He went off to Switzerland, Austria and Italy, finishing the symphony and determining henceforth to be only what he was. Before long, he was out on the street again, being himself.
He possessed, apparently, a remarkable ability to detach himself from his various predicaments and get on with the work. But the essence of his harrowing and depressing experience is there in the music. He himself said the music was a “faithful echo” of the crisis he had just about survived. Judge for yourselves.