Knowing a musician’s life is essential to understanding any piece of their music, especially classical. Being aware of the struggles a composer dealt with while creating their music is like adding captions to the image the composer was trying to convey to the listener.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky is one of the most famous composers to ever live. His pieces are played every year by orchestras and ballets across the world, including classics such as the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. In this article, I will introduce you to the context and meaning of my favorite piece, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky began composing this piece at one of the lowest points of his life. As he initiated his career in composition, he started to learn and struggle with who he was. In particular, he was working to understand how to be a gay man in a world that did not allow homosexuality of any kind. After much consideration, he decided he must marry a woman so people would believe he was straight; it didn’t matter who it was. Around the time he came to this decision, Antonina Miliukova began writing him a series of letters where she confessed her love, claiming that she would end her life if he wouldn’t marry her. This worked well for Tchaikovsky, so he met her in person, and they married soon after.
The wedding did not go well, marking a rocky start to a doomed marriage. Soon after, he found an excuse to visit his family. But eventually he had to return to his wife where he fell into a deep depression. As he struggled with his marriage, he tried to make himself become deathly ill. But despite his best efforts, he recovered to full health. Soon after this recovery, he visited his brother where he collapsed from the pressure. The brother decided that the marriage was too much stress for Tchaikovsky and decided that he and his wife should never see each other again, thus ending the marriage.
Tchaikovsky began composing his fourth symphony at this time. A sense of complete sadness underlies the entire symphony beginning with the first theme by the brass, representing fate. This theme of fate is sprinkled throughout the symphony, separated by moments of joy and love. Tchaikovsky’s use of the theme illustrated the inescapable power of fate; the failed marriage being just one of the many ways fate had directed his life. He felt that any happiness he ever felt would be taken away by a terrible act—predestined by fate. When listening to the entire piece, understanding the background of the fate theme as it contrasts with the joyous themes creates a more profound listening experience.
Take any piece of music—pop, classical, or jazz—and read a little about the musician’s life. This small amount of reading, even just a section of a Wikipedia page, will make a huge difference in how you understand and relate to all music.
Allegro Films. “Tchaikovsky's Women - Documentary about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Part 1.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Nov. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sa9NArmuHTg.
Allegro Films. “Tchaikovsky's Fate - Documentary about Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky | Part 2.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Nov. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoPQtBRbzdw
San Francisco Symphony. “Keeping Score | Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (Full Documentary and Concert).” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tABgYM0Gsw.