The Second Movement of the Fourth Symphony by Tchaikovsky
Being eager to write his perfect piece, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a prolific writer of large forms such as operas and ballets, composed the Fourth Symphony relying on a stable structure and elegant form. Paying an homage to an element in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky used a ‘Fate’ motif to bind together four movements of Symphony Four. However, unlike Beethoven, he was not rebellious against the fate allotted to him. In contrast, he felt powerless to withstand it. After the first movement that lays down the stormy relations between a protagonist and his Destiny, the second movement is full of sadness because the past cannot be changed and the future cannot be influenced; he is doomed.
The second movement is Andantino in the style of the canzona as it is not sung but played with instruments. It also means that this movement is not very fast but not slow either. Played in B-flat minor the movement has waltz and march elements but is rather slow. Developing the theme of fate the second movement begins with a suspension. An oboe plays a long and sad solo that anticipates the meditative and pensive part of the symphony. Getting ready to talk about the saddest and the most melancholic state Tchaikovsky begins the second movement with a long note.
The second movement is melancholic; an oboe sets the tone. The melody played by the oboe is so beautiful that it does not need any support from other instruments for some time. It is the first theme used in the second movement that will be then interpreted by other instruments. After the oboe solo the cellos join in and repeat the same melody. Whereas the oboe sounded very lamenting, the woodwinds all together give a more powerful and confident sound. Then the flutes begin in the background coming forward with a more pronounced melodic pattern. However, they play a countermelody. Together with the string sector, the orchestra now sounds in full force.
In order a song could be versatile and interesting several themes should be repeated and interpreted in various ways. It gives a sense of recognition and at the same time shows that the composer develops a theme. Therefore, in the second movement, Tchaikovsky uses one of his techniques when he takes a certain element and does it in different keys. So when the whole orchestra starts playing it plays an element in A-flat major, then D major, and in F-sharp minor.
All the instruments join in a powerful sound for several moments. Then they go quite and the strings come forward. Now the title musical theme of the second movement comes back. This time it is played by the bassoon and the violins. And again the orchestra joins in one by one. First, the flutes pick up the tune, then the strings, and the whole orchestra joins in.
After the transition to the next theme, the rhythm changes and now it is march-like. Played in full orchestra, the march is light and uncomplicated but with variations and masterful repetitions Tchaikovsky makes it a masterpiece. He allows one section take a lead and then be changed by another section. First play the flutes, then the string section comes forward, then all instruments raise and fall the intensity of their sound to the counter-theme.
Then Tchaikovsky returns the original theme that was played by the oboe at the beginning of the second movement. Now it comes back in a subdued form. Against the sorrowful playing of the strings that flows like a quite stream the woodwinds play one by one to convey a flattering movement. The woodwinds highlight the little scales throughout the musical patterns. The flute, the clarinet, the bassoon, played one by one, add their tingling and flittering sounds against the monolithic sound of the orchestra.
The transition moves the piece to its final part. The bassoon takes the lead and plays a long solo of the first theme. The violins and cellos tenderly support the original theme again. And slowly and somberly a tense and emotional part is flowing into the Coda. It is not prolonged. Atmospherically it resembles a person drifting away by fireside and the coda symbolizes a book that is falling out of his lap. With the last chords of the bassoon the second movement dies away.
Even though the Fourth Symphony is a symphonic form Tchaikovsky struggled to keep it pure and clean. Tchaikovsky tended more to Romantic expressions full of emotions and vigor, whereas a symphony requires German precision in structure and almost architecture-like stability.
For the Fourth Symphony the composer developed a powerful and complete melody. However, according to the rules of a sonata, a single melody should not dominate a piece. Rather it should be contrasted with other secondary melodies and tunes. Tchaikovsky’s genius results in a way he blends and contrasts the major melody with additional tunes and the way he blends rhythm and harmony into one musical piece.
Thus, for the Fourth Symphony Tchaikovsky retains the general form but allows himself variations and relative freedom within the piece. Back then Tchaikovsky was blamed for ‘Russian’ sound of his music. By implementing a more rigid symphonic form Tchaikovsky blended Russian-like content and German-like precision of the form. After the energetic first movement, the second movement is played in minor and serves as a period of reminiscences.
As was said earlier, the composer makes destiny and fate his major theme of the symphony. After a dramatic introduction of the subject in the first movement, the second movement plunges the audience into a reverie.
By creating a melancholic mood, Tchaikovsky makes a statement about his relation to the fate – he feels powerless and weak. However, the tingling sounds of the bassoon and other woodwinds point out that the gloom of life can be interjected by happiness and joyful moments.
Time signature for the second movement of the Fourth Symphony is 5/4 rhythm. Tchaikovsky counterpoints the waltz and the march in this movement. It means that the composer divides the rhythm into two plus three beats per measure. At the same time Tchaikovsky keeps that grouping of elements in symmetry.
Texturally the second movement is developed. It is not layered; rather Tchaikovsky moves in a linear fashion fully developing one theme and then moves to another in order to later get back to the previous one. Thus, the early developments impact the later themes.
In order to show a connection to the first movement, the second movement repeats the elements of the first movement’s ‘fate’ motif. This time the violins do it. Thus Tchaikovsky reinterprets the theme with different instruments and further develops it.
Each section of instruments slightly and significantly reinterprets and elaborates a theme. For example, in the middle of the second movement the horn continues the theme started by the string section and then the woodwinds elaborate it further.
As a composer of Russian origin Tchaikovsky is known for implementing folklore into his music. The Fourth Symphony incorporates elements of a Russian folk song “In the Meadow Stood a Little Birch Tree”. Although the fourth movement has a more pronounced quotation of the folk song, this motif in repeated in each movement.
For example, the second movement opens with the oboe playing a version of the “Little Birch Tree” song. When it is picked up by the strings they offer another interpretation of the same motif. Later the clarinet plays an embellished version of the motif echoed by the flutes and the other clarinet. At that the bassoon counterpoints with a long descending version of the motif.
The second movement has the ABACA form while the “Little Birch Tree” song is AABB and as a folk song is simpler. Both songs are played in minor. However, with embellishings and variations of the motif, Tchaikovsky creates a truly magnificent piece of music. While it sometimes sounds in a Russian way due to folkloric elements, the second movement has a structure of a western piece of music.
Despite the 5/4 time signature the symphony has a regular rhythm. Played in minor the melody has no wide melodic range. The tempo of the second movement is mostly slow and moderate at times. The second movement has soft dynamic level as it is written in minor key and is not so expressive as the first movement with loud brass climaxes.
In comparison with the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, the second movement is easier to play and less dramatic to hear. Tchaikovsky lets the woodwinds and the strings take the lead and when they play in minor they sound solemn and melancholic.
The second movement presents a break and a relief from the energetic and agitated first movement that laid down the topic of fate. After the heaviness of the Damocles’ sword, as Tchaikovsky represents fate, he tells how one can sit by fireside and plunge into memories. When Destiny is set one can do nothing about it. Powerlessness mixed with joy from happy moments permeates the second movement. Melodically it is manifested in wistful and sad performance of the full orchestra with an occasional uplifted timbre of the woodwinds and the strings.