1878: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, age 38

This music is about fate, which has been said also to be a huge part of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is one of the most popular symphonies ever written, always an audience favorite, and judging by the famous conductors who recorded it, it is also a favorite of musicians of all kinds.

I. Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante  — Allegro vivo:

Destiny, that fateful force which impedes the impulse toward fulfillment, which jealously ensures that prosperity and peace are never complete and cloudless, which hangs overhead like a sword of Damocles. It is invincible and you will never vanquish it. All that we can do is subject ourselves and vainly lament.” – Tchaikovsky 

II. Andantino in modo di canzona:

How sad to think that so much has been, so much is gone! We regret the past, yet we have neither the courage nor the desire to begin life afresh. We are weary of existence.” – Tchaikovsky 

III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro:

Suddenly arises the memory of a drunken peasant and a ribald song, and military music in the distance. Such disconnected images flit through the brain as one sinks into a tipsy slumber. They have nothing to do with reality; they are incomprehensible, bizarre and fragmentary” – Tchaikovsky 

IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco:

Go among the people. See how they understand how to be happy. But no sooner have you forgotten yourself in contemplation of the joys of others than Fate returns to remind you . . .” – Tchaikovsky 


There is an incredible amount written about this symphony. You can click on the above link, which is a typical Wiki article – full of a lot of information but not very well presented.

What was happening in 1878 musically?

  • 1878 and 1886: Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, age 37 and 45
  • 1878: Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major
  • 1878: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, age 38
  • 1878: Wagner Parsifal “Overture”


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle
  • strings

Movement I: Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo

All these different tempo marks just mean that this is complicated. The moods and speeds keep changing. There are many different sections, but the dominant feeling is minor. It is extremely intense, very emotional, and there is a theme that is linked to fate. That fate theme is very important here, but it comes back again in the last movement. They key is F minor, but you only know that for sure because it starts and ends powerfully in that key.

Movement II: Andantino in modo di canzona

This literally says something sort of slow, but not too slow, and that is in the style of a song. It is one of the most expressive and lyrical slow movements every written, so probably nothing more is important. It is in the key of Bb minor.

Right in the middle of this movement Tchaikovsky uses the quartet of major chords to move from Ab major to B major to D major and finally up to F major.

Movement III: Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro

Ostinato refers to something that is continuously repeated, so this could refer to the melody or anything else, but in this case it is probably about the very repetitive rhythm. Of special interest to me is that the “scherzo” evolved from the minuet but much, much faster. The minuet is in 3/4 time, but this is 2/4. To know whether it is in two or four beat measures you have to see the score, but you can hear it is not in three. This has something marked as a trio in the middle, but that just means a different section from the beginning and end that has a different feel, and it moves to A major. and Db major The movement features the Trinity chord modulation idea front and center.

Movement IV: Finale: Allegro con fuoco

This is back in F major, and there is really little to say about it because it’s so powerful and manic that you just want to listen to it. However, before it’s all over, the fate theme from the 1st movement comes back. Not all symphonies repeat themes or ideas from other movements and we are left to accept, on faith, that all the movements really do belong together. However, those composers who refer to past movements do something very special to pull everything together, and when this is done there is a unification that proves all the music is really one unified creation.

Now HERE is someone’s very personal view…

You will have to scroll down a bit on this page, but it’s a fascinating read.

Now, my thoughts…

I just want to get to the music, and perhaps once again point out how incredibly stupid critics were, as well as Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries. The short story is that Tchaikovsky was caught in a war of opinions.

Caught between two factions…

On one side were those who wanted things to stay the same, to continue in the tried and true tradition of European music. These people, of course, were looking backwards and simply did not understand how the world was changing, the musical world as well as the world at large.

On the other side were the forward-looking people who wanted things to change, and as quickly as possible. I have much more respect for their view, but they too were often so polarized in their views that they became unreasonable and extreme. Those on the side of change in Russia were extremely nationalistic and wanted first and foremost to further the advance of Russian music.

Tchaikovsky was caught in the middle…

The quasi-war between these two factions very nearly destroyed him. He was an intensely sensitive man, terribly self-critical, so he was caught in the crossfire. If you read a great deal about this symphony, the 4th of six, you will find that it was anything but an instant success. Today this seems utterly incomprehensible, since once the world caught it became one of the most universally popular symphonies every written.

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