Tchaikovsky's Fourth

Program Notes

It is somewhat surprising to realize that the three diverse works on this evening’s concert were composed within the same half-century, between 1857 and 1906. Wagner and Schoenberg, each of whom pushed the parameters of tonality, are heard on the first half. After intermission, we’ll experience, Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and ever-popular Symphony No. 4.

Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9b

Arnold Schoenberg
(Born 13 September 1874, Vienna, Austria; Died 13 July 1951, Los Angeles, California)

Composed: completed July 1906

First Performance: 8 February 1907; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, strings

Approximate Duration: 22 minutes

The name Arnold Schoenberg can strike fear into the heart of even the most dedicated concert-goer. Too often, it evokes images of craggy, dissonant, incomprehensible noise. While it’s true that his 12-tone music can prove challenging, overall the poor man has gotten a bum rap. When approached with an open mind, music that is off-putting at first hearing can later provide meaning and edification. We should also remember that his earliest works are tonal; indeed, the string piece Transfigured Night, Op. 4 and the massive über-Romantic cantata Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre) offer some of the most beautifully erotic music ever set down. 

The piece at hand, his Chamber Symphony No. 1, also dates from the time Schoenberg was still writing in a tonal idiom. In its first incarnation, the work was scored for 15 players; in 1922 the composer provided a version for full orchestra, and this was revised in 1935. Though set in a single movement, the Symphony is actually a conflation of several movements, as outlined by Schoenberg himself: sonata allegro; scherzo; development; adagio; recapitulation and finale.

Regarding the work’s motivic and harmonic characteristics, musicologist Oliver Neighbor writes, “The two opening themes are based respectively on superimposed perfect fourths and the whole-tone scale, both of which readily form chordal structures. The distinction between the melodic and harmonic dimension thus becomes blurred, a process closely bound up with tonality in Schoenberg’s music. However, for the moment the E major frame held.”

The premiere of this exuberant opus was led by the composer in 1907, in its 15-instrument scoring. The revised orchestral version was first heard in Los Angeles on 27 December 1936, also under Schoenberg’s direction.

Recommended Recording: Pierre Boulez, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)


Wesendonck Lieder

Richard Wagner
(Born 22 May 1913, Leipzig, Germany; Died 13 February 1883, Venice, Italy)

Composed: 1857-58

First Performance:

Last MSO Performance: November 1966; Harry John Brown, conductor; Eileen Farrell, soprano

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, trumpet, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 21 minutes

In 1857, Richard Wagner was living in Zurich. Eight years earlier, he had been forced into exile after being implicated in the abortive Dresden Revolution; with the help of Franz Liszt, he had managed to escape to Switzerland. He was banned from German for 11 years (1849-60).

In Switzerland, as he worked on his opera Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), Wagner had a love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a Zurich silk merchant. Between November 1857 and May 1858, he set to music five of Mathilde’s poems, for voice and piano. Apparently, the poor woman fancied herself the composer’s muse, and he encouraged this by reading aloud to her all his prose works and the complete Tristan libretto. After Wagner’s wife Minna intercepted a letter addressed to Mathilde, the catastrophe that ensued led to the composer’s eventual departure to Venice. Despite his passionate infatuation, the composer had not taken Mathilde seriously as a writer: The manuscript title page of the Wesendonck songs calls them “Fünf Dilettanten-Gedichte” (Five Dilettante Poems).

Both the texts and the music of these five songs came to fruition while Wagner was writing Tristan und Isolde. The composer later described two of them—”Im Triebhaus” and “Träume”—as “studies” for that music drama. “Der Engel” (The Angel) imagines angels descending from heaven to console those on earth. The soprano’s lines soar above an undulating accompaniment that suggests the slow beating of angels’ wings. “Stehe still” (Stand still!) portrays the spinning wheel of time. The music finds a calmer mood as the lovers’ perfect union provides a glimpse of eternity. “Im Triebhaus” (In the Greenhouse) was the last of the songs to be composed. Its aching, grief-tinged prelude—surely some of the saddest music ever written—found its way into Act 3 of Tristan und Isolde, as the wounded Tristan awaits the arrival of his beloved. “Schmerzen” (Pains) heroically depicts the poetic imagery of the sun dying each evening, only to be resurrected to new life each morning. “Träume” (Dreams) was the genesis of one of the greatest love duets in all of opera—”Liebesnacht”—sung in Act 2 by Tristan and Isolde. It was the only Wesendonck song orchestrated by Wagner, as a birthday present to Mathilde. The Austrian conductor and composer Felix Mottl (1856-1911) orchestrated the others.

Recommended Recording: Dame Janet Baker; Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI/Warner)


Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(Born 7 May 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia; Died 6 November 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Composed: 1877-78

First Performance: 4 March 1878; Moscow, Russia

Last MSO Performance: September 2013; Andreas Delfs, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), strings

Approximate Duration: 44 minutes

All his adult life, Tchaikovsky struggled with his homosexuality and its attendant guilt. At age 37, thinking marriage, domesticity, and a sympathetic woman the possible solution, he made a rash and desperate decision: He married Antonina Milyukova, a Conservatory student from whom he had received a written declaration of love. Their union was a disaster that led Tchaikovsky to a nervous breakdown, an attempted suicide, and a hasty retreat to Western Europe.

His Fourth Symphony dates from this stormy period, 1877-78, the same time he was composing the opera Eugene Onegin. His work on Op. 36 also coincides with the start-up of a 13-year association with his patroness Nadehzda von Meck; it was a felicitous relationship that, though they never actually met, provided a needed emotional outlet for both parties. With these disparate external circumstances, it’s little wonder the composer vacillated between melancholy and exuberance, between optimism and resignation. One can’t help hearing these contrasts in the music itself.

The F Minor Symphony opens with an ominous brass fanfare—the “fate” motif—that recurs throughout the large-scale first movement; listen for its return in the finale as well. Of this, the composer wrote:

The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the central theme. This is Fate, i.e., that fateful force that prevents the impulse toward happiness from entirely achieving its goal, forever on jealous guard lest peace and well-being should ever be attained in complete and unclouded form, hanging above us like the Sword of Damocles… Our only choice is to surrender to it…

The tuneful second movement, Andantino “in the manner of a song,” begins with a mournful oboe solo; the passionate climax is a reminder of the lamenting phrases prevalent in the first movement. “Here is that melancholy feeling that enwraps one when he sits alone at night in the house exhausted by work,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “A swarm of reminiscences arises. It is sad, yet sweet, to lose one’s self in the past.

Playful pizzicato strings dominate the scherzo. According to the composer, “Here are capricious arabesques, vague figures that slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated.” Woodwinds and brass provide contrast, then join together with the plucked strings to bring the movement to a close. The final movement, Allegro “with fire,” combines rondo, sonata, and variation form. Tchaikovsky incorporates an old Russian folksong (“In the field stood a birch tree”) as one of its themes. The brass fanfare from the first movement is revived as a disquieting presence, but the music’s momentum returns to end this much-loved symphony in resplendent jubilation.

Recommended Recording: Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.