Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36.

Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, is a towering work in the symphonic repertoire, embodying a deep exploration of fate, emotion, and the human experience. Composed between 1877 and 1878, during a tumultuous period in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s life, this symphony is often interpreted as a reflection of his personal struggles and his attempt to grapple with the concept of fate. The symphony is dedicated to his patroness and close confidante, Nadezhda von Meck, to whom Tchaikovsky explained the work’s programmatic elements, particularly the idea of fate as an inescapable force that pervades human life.

Symphony No. 4 is notable for its dramatic opening, characterized by the bold and foreboding fanfare of the brass section, which Tchaikovsky himself described as representing “Fate, the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness…”. This motif recurs throughout the symphony, acting as a thematic anchor that binds the work together and underscores the composer’s preoccupation with the concept of fate.

Musically, the symphony is rich in emotional depth and complexity, blending traditional Russian melodies and folk themes with the broader European symphonic tradition. Tchaikovsky’s mastery of orchestration is evident in his use of the orchestra to create vivid textures and colors, from the melancholic beauty of the string sections to the powerful brass motifs. The symphony is structured in four movements, each contributing to the narrative arc of the work and reflecting various aspects of the human condition, from despair and introspection to joy and exuberance.

One of the defining features of the Symphony No. 4 is its use of programmatic elements to convey a narrative or emotional journey. Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with von Meck reveals his intentions to depict a struggle with fate, the pursuit of happiness, and the eventual reconciliation with life’s circumstances. This programmatic intent adds a layer of depth to the music, inviting listeners to engage with the symphony on both an emotional and intellectual level.

The symphony was met with mixed reactions at its premiere but has since become one of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved and frequently performed works. Its appeal lies not only in its technical brilliance and emotional intensity but also in its universal themes of fate, struggle, and the search for meaning. The Symphony No. 4 stands as a testament to Tchaikovsky’s ability to convey profound emotional narratives through music, and it remains a cornerstone of symphonic literature, celebrated for its compelling integration of personal expression and traditional form.

Nadezhda von Meck, the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meckthe, the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Photo: Wikipedia

Tchaikovsky dedicated this symphony to his financial supporter, Nadezhda von Meck (10 February [O.S. 29 January] 1831 – 13 January 1894). She was a Russian businesswoman who became an influential patron of the arts, especially music. She is best known today for her artistic relationship with Tchaikovsky, supporting him financially for thirteen years, so that he could devote himself full-time to composition while stipulating that they were never to meet. She also gave financial support to several other musicians, including Nikolai Rubinstein and Claude Debussy.

The symphony is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.


With the start times in the video:

  1. [01:09] Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima (F minor) – Moderato assai, quasi Andante (B major – F major) – Allegro vivo (F minor)
  2. [18:14] Andantino in modo di canzona (B-flat minor – F major – B♭ minor)
  3. [27:45] Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro (F major – Trio in A major and D-flat major)
  4. [33:24] Finale: Allegro con fuoco (F major)

1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima (F minor) – Moderato assai, quasi Andante (B major – F major) – Allegro vivo (F minor)

The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, is a powerful and emotionally charged piece that sets the tone for the entire symphony. It opens with a striking fanfare by the brass section, which Tchaikovsky referred to as the “Fate” motif. This motif is a crucial element of the symphony, symbolizing the inescapable force of fate that looms over humanity. The fanfare is not just an introduction but a thematic thread that will reappear throughout the symphony, lending it cohesion and depth.

Following the dramatic opening, the movement transitions into the main body, which is marked by a mix of turbulent emotions and lyrical passages. The structure of the movement is complex, adhering to a sonata form that includes an exposition, development, and recapitulation, but Tchaikovsky manipulates this form to enhance the emotional narrative of the music. The exposition introduces two main themes: the first is a melancholy melody played by the strings, reflective and full of longing, while the second theme is more lyrical and hopeful, offering a contrast to the somber mood set by the opening.

The development section delves deeper into these themes, exploring their emotional and musical possibilities. Tchaikovsky’s orchestration shines in this section, as he employs a wide range of instruments to create a rich tapestry of sound. The interplay between the orchestra’s sections highlights the composer’s skill in weaving together complex emotional narratives through music.

As the movement progresses to the recapitulation, the Fate motif returns, reminding the listener of the symphony’s overarching theme. The return of this motif brings a sense of unity to the movement, tying together the various musical and emotional threads. The movement concludes with a coda that revisits the main themes, culminating in a powerful and dramatic finish that leaves a lasting impression.

2. Andantino in modo di canzona (B-flat minor – F major – B♭ minor)

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, offers a poignant contrast to the intense, fate-driven drama of the first movement. This movement, marked Andantino in modo di canzona, is characterized by its lyrical beauty and emotional depth, showcasing Tchaikovsky’s gift for melody and his ability to express profound feelings through music.

The movement opens with a melancholic oboe melody that sets a reflective and somewhat sorrowful tone. This melody, simple yet deeply expressive, is the heart of the movement and serves as a basis for the development that follows. The theme is passed and varied among different sections of the orchestra, each variation adding a new layer of emotional nuance. The strings, in particular, play a significant role in this movement, their lush and tender playing enhancing the music’s introspective quality.

Tchaikovsky’s orchestration in the second movement is notable for its subtlety and restraint. Rather than employing the full force of the orchestra, he opts for a more chamber-like texture, allowing the individual colors of the instruments to shine through. This approach creates a more intimate atmosphere, drawing the listener into a personal, reflective space.

The structure of the movement is relatively straightforward, but Tchaikovsky’s mastery lies in his ability to imbue this simplicity with profound emotional weight. The central theme undergoes various transformations, each conveying different shades of melancholy and longing. Despite the prevailing somber mood, there are moments of warmth and consolation, particularly in the major key sections, where Tchaikovsky provides a temporary respite from the sadness.

As the movement progresses, the initial theme returns, but it is now imbued with a deeper sense of resignation and acceptance. The movement concludes quietly, with the final notes fading into silence, leaving a lingering sense of bittersweet contemplation.

3. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro (F major – Trio in A major and D-flat major)

The third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, is a striking departure from the emotional depth and introspection of the second movement, showcasing Tchaikovsky’s versatility and innovative approach to symphonic writing. Marked as “Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro,” this movement is unique for its extensive use of pizzicato (plucked strings), creating a light, airy texture that contrasts sharply with the symphony’s previous movements.

The movement is composed entirely for the string section, which plucks their instruments throughout, a technique that lends the music a distinctive, almost whimsical character. This choice highlights Tchaikovsky’s creative orchestration skills and his willingness to explore the timbral possibilities of the orchestra. The effect is both charming and slightly eerie, as the plucked strings evoke a sense of delicate movement, akin to the scurrying of insects or the flickering of lights.

Structurally, the Scherzo adheres to the traditional A-B-A form, with a trio section that introduces a contrast in mood and texture. The main section is lively and rhythmic, characterized by the precise, staccato notes of the pizzicato strings. The music’s rhythm is engaging and propulsive, driving the movement forward with a sense of playful urgency. The trio section offers a brief respite from the relentless rhythm of the Scherzo, introducing a more lyrical melody that provides a moment of melodic relief before the return of the pizzicato theme.

The return to the Scherzo theme is marked by an increase in dynamic and textural complexity, as Tchaikovsky skillfully builds tension and excitement. The orchestration remains inventive, with Tchaikovsky weaving the plucked strings into intricate patterns that demonstrate his mastery of counterpoint and harmony. The movement concludes with a spirited coda that brings the Scherzo to a vibrant and exhilarating close.

The third movement of Symphony No. 4 is notable for its originality and the sheer delight it brings to listeners. Tchaikovsky’s use of pizzicato throughout the movement is a bold orchestral choice that pays off, creating a memorable and distinctive piece within the symphonic repertoire. This movement serves as a testament to Tchaikovsky’s ingenuity and his ability to infuse his music with a sense of joy and playfulness, even within the context of a symphony that grapples with profound themes of fate and emotion.

4. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (F major)

The fourth and final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, serves as a powerful and triumphant conclusion to the symphony, bringing the emotional journey full circle. Marked “Finale: Allegro con fuoco,” this movement is characterized by its vibrant energy, dramatic intensity, and the return of the “Fate” motif that has been a recurring theme throughout the symphony.

This movement opens with a fanfare that recalls the fate motif introduced in the first movement, immediately establishing a connection to the symphony’s overarching themes. However, the mood here is far more assertive and determined, suggesting a confrontation with fate rather than resignation to it. The music quickly launches into a series of lively and rhythmic themes that showcase Tchaikovsky’s skill in orchestration and thematic development.

The finale is structured in a sonata form, featuring a dynamic and dramatic development section where Tchaikovsky masterfully manipulates the thematic material, weaving together the various motifs introduced throughout the symphony. The orchestration is rich and full, with the entire orchestra being utilized to create a sound that is both powerful and nuanced. The brass and percussion sections play prominent roles, adding to the movement’s dramatic impact and driving the music forward with relentless energy.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this movement is Tchaikovsky’s use of Russian folk melodies, which are integrated into the thematic material to reinforce the sense of national identity and pride. These melodies contribute to the celebratory and triumphant atmosphere of the finale, underscoring the music’s emotional resonance and depth.

As the movement progresses, the tempo and intensity continue to build, leading to a climactic reprise of the fate motif. This time, however, the motif is transformed, suggesting a sense of victory and liberation from the forces of fate. The symphony concludes with a grand and exultant coda, in which the themes of the finale are brought together in a dazzling display of orchestral virtuosity. The final bars are marked by a triumphant return of the opening fanfare, now transformed into a powerful affirmation of life and resilience.

The fourth movement of Symphony No. 4 is a masterful conclusion to one of Tchaikovsky’s most profound and emotionally charged works. Through its dynamic energy, thematic complexity, and brilliant orchestration, the movement encapsulates the symphony’s exploration of fate, emotion, and the human spirit. It leaves the listener with a sense of catharsis and triumph, marking the symphony as not only a personal statement by Tchaikovsky but also a universal exploration of the challenges and triumphs of the human condition.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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