Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878)
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)
with The Philharmonic Orchestra
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and sole Serenade for Strings were written in a narrow window in composer’s life. Amidst the brewing Russian classical music scene, set against a wider backdrop of nationalistic fervour and intellectual expansion in Europe, Tchaikovsky maintained an almost paradoxical balance of ostensibly strong classical form against autobiographical expression and artistic innovation. Basing entire movements around Russian folk-songs seemed second nature to this gifted eccentric, who seemed equally at home with ballet music.
Tchaikovsky’s personal life was fraught with turbulence and diametrical forces more human than divine – homosexuality, marriage, patronage, friendship, isolation, luxury, despication, adulation. His struggles also included musical ones between both the nationalistic Five and conservative Moscow faculty. In short, things came to a head in 1877, and the ensuing storm and tumultuous zeitgeist was neatly encapsulated in the 4th Symphony.
Like fresh wellsprings of water from a hitherto unspecified downpour came the Serenade – a mere and surprising three years had barely passed when Tchaikovsky, seemingly out of boredom, was struck with a good mind to sketch out a “symphony or string quartet”, finally deciding on a Serenade for a “[large] string orchestra”. While the 4th was written with the intention of tribute to his patron von Meck, the Serenade seemed an involuntary catharsis, an “impulse”, of which Tchaikovsky was terribly pleased and impassioned with its being penned into score.
As if by intervention more divine than human though, most public reception for the 4th was as odious as that for the Serenade was warm. In modern times too, contemporary artists have used these works in full-length animation, ballet choreography, with cameos in a track by Pink Floyd. Whilst the 4th was loosely inspired by Beethoven, and the Serenade an homage to Mozart, history would, ironically or reasonably judge Tchaikovsky and place him among the greats of music.
Here’s to a clean glass of water, and a very enjoyable 4th of June.