Whatever else its value – as an avenue for emotional catharsis, an ornament meant to please, an object that serves utilitarian ends – each piece of music is aural autobiography. Composers cannot escape the fact that their creations inevitably reflect their time and their training, their inspirations and insights. At the same time, it is impossible not to notice that in the works of Tchaikovsky, personality became paramount as never before. Not in his earliest works, perhaps, which were products of his conservatory tutelage in Moscow and St. Petersburg and resonate with innate gifts for melody and orchestration. But beginning in the mid-1870s, something changed. Personal struggles were made publicly manifest and inner conflicts found outward expression. Although the value of Tchaikovsky’s works – of the works, indeed, of any composer – resides ultimately in the musicitself, the exceptional nature of their creation demands attention.
In the Fourth Symphony (1877-78), most notably, composition and confession are confounded. Tchaikovsky composed his prior three symphonies in situations that seem ordinary in comparison to the genesis of the Fourth. The First (called Winter Daydreams ) was the composer’s first major professional endeavor; it emerged with difficulty in 1866 and ’67, but was successfully premiered in 1868. (It would be revised in 1874.) The Second (the Little Russian, a nickname acquired after the composer’s death, in recognition of the Ukrainian folktunes it employs) was composed in 1872 and premiered in ’73; showing Tchaikovsky’s music at its most nationalistic, it was an immediate success (though in 1880 it, too, would be revised). And the Third (the Polish, so named, for the Tempo di polacca of its final movement) was warmly received at its 1875 first performance.