Following Beethoven’s expansion of the symphonic model, composers of the Romantic period (roughly 19th-century) sought to create longer and larger symphonies with heightened passion. The number of composers and symphonies from this period seems endless so we’ll focus on just a few major names in today’s discussion.
At this point in history, it was not uncommon to see an orchestra of over 200 people! Composers began to expand movement lengths and some even added one or even two movements to the standard four-movement model. Some composers used vocalists in their symphonies (Mahler) while some attempted to create national idioms (Borodin, Sibelius, Dvorak). Some created programmatic music that told audiences a story (R. Strauss, Berlioz), while some created what is known as absolute music, sticking to the standard symphonic tradition of music for music’s sake (Brahms, Schumann, Schubert). Some composers even added non-orchestral instruments to their works such as Saint-Saens in his Symphony No. 3 “Organ.”
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is a great example of a symphony from the Romantic period. The symphony is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s best friend and patron, Mrs. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow with whom he passed many letters but never met. It contains a program that assists audiences in following the symphony’s message.
Tchaikovsky describes the first movement of the Symphony No. 4 as having an introductory theme that represents fate. This main theme returns throughout the work. During this movement, Tchaikovsky depicts his desire to escape into daydreams rather than facing the reality of life. The “fate” theme returns, however, reminding him of the truth of his gloomy circumstances that may have included his failed marriage to Antonina Miliukov or even his questions regarding his sexual orientation.
The second movement depicts feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, pain, longing, and reflection on distant memories. The solo oboe at the beginning is meant to portray a lonely person. A march in the middle of the movement takes the listener away from the feelings of isolation exhibited thus far. The longing, lonely melody always returns in various instrumentations.
The third movement contains a series of arabesques that represent strange, unrealistic, unconnected dreams. Many of the themes show-off a particular instrument’s technique (example: piccolo solo).
The fourth movement reflects the joy that comes from surrounding yourself with other people when you are depressed (opening melody). To help depict the sense of community, Tchaikovsky uses the Russian folksong “In the Field a Birch Tree Stood.” The reminder of fate (main theme from first movement) always returns, however, bringing you back to reality and discontentment.
Tchaikovsky considered this his best symphonic work saying, "It seems to me that this is my best work…What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I... am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development..."
You can listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 here. How do you think Tchaikovsky expanded upon the symphonic model built a century earlier?