I always loved the music of Tchaikovsky, his ballet music, the violin concerto, the first piano concerto, his later symphonies. But I began to have an intense interest in his life as well as his music when I was studying the music of one of Tchaikovsky’s early mentors, Anton Rubinstein.
I recorded Rubinstein’s 3rd and 5th Symphonies and performed the 3rd with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic some y…ears ago. I was privileged to use the same podium that Tchaikovsky used when he conducted. I also visited the St. Petersburg Conservatory which Rubinstein founded. I remember seeing an honor roll of students and Tchaikovsky’s name was on top. I conducted in Russia several times and it is easy to get the Tchaikovsky bug when you are there. He was and still is considered a national treasure. Since my travels to Russia, I developed a new appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s music.
His life is like a continuous soap opera with all the drama, story twists, love affairs, intrigue, and pathos one can handle. One cannot properly perform his music without knowing something about Tchaikovsky’s personal life. His fourth symphony speaks volumes about his personality, his restlessness, his inner conflict which was never resolved while he was still alive. We are so fortunate to have at our disposal thousands of letters that he wrote to his patron, Madame von Meck, whom he never met officially. Tchaikovsky dedicated “our symphony” to his patron. But his life was always in turmoil. He married and a few weeks later left his bride and fled. What was this force of destiny that is portrayed in the opening of his Op. 36? Who was the real Tchaikovsky? Even today, this question is still debated. Was life so unbearable to him that he tried to kill himself by drinking untreated water? As Rubinstein was tormented throughout his life by anti-Semitism in 19th Century Russia so was Tchaikovsky, as a homosexual born into an intolerant high society. What we do know is that the Fourth Symphony represents the maturing Tchaikovsky. A work full of beautiful meandering melodies…restless melodies…always searching for an answer to an elusive question. He writes of the last fiery movement, “If you can find no impulse for joy within yourself, look at others.” A melancholy joy..Tchaikovsky, the alcoholic, the party boy, the creator of melodies that knows no time barrier. Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, part of a trilogy and originally entitled, Life, and published a few years before Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 makes a great companion opener for this program.
As stated in the Henle edition, Carnival “portrays a carnival mood of merriment and a spirit of youthful revelry with care-free abandon”. Tchaikovsky often escaped into an underground world of “merriment” as well as finding solace in Nature. Carnival’s slow middle section is bucolic and actually quotes one of the other overtures called, Nature. Melodies in the Fourth Symphony and some in the Dvorak work often intersect stylistically and sound very, well, Slavic. The sheer happiness in Carnival is obvious. Tchaikovsky’s music can be happy at times but such happiness can often be tinged with a certain profound sadness written by a man with a conflicted and troubled soul. The Fourth Symphony gives the audience a snapshot view of a complicated but passionate composer. Music, he writes, has often saved is life.