Spring is finally here.
In Green Country we know it by the thunderous storms that move across the plains: Windy, tumultuous, dangerous, they’re tornado factories, sky-high whales that force us to throw our phone chargers and snacks and important papers in little bags, just in case.
I find it appropriate, then, that this Saturday the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is putting on Pyotr (or Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, since, out of all of his symphonies, it’s the most akin to a terrifying spring storm. It arrives, causes a lot of mayhem, and leaves something beautiful in its wake.
The Russian-born Tchaikovsky (b. 1840) was a cantankerous gay genius whose name was destined to become associated forever in audiences’ minds with soaring, romantic music, and especially with ballet. His ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty, are rightfully celebrated (and oft-performed in Tulsa), but his symphonies are where he really shines—and where he lets out his most chaotic, storming energy.
In 1876, at odds with his sexuality, Tchaikovsky married a woman. It was a commitment he made, it seems, simply to keep his contemporaries from talking. “I will do my utmost to get married this year,” he wrote to his brother in 1876, “so as to shut the mouths of assorted contemptible creatures whose opinions mean nothing to me, but who are in a position to cause distress to those near to me.” At that time, homosexual sex could be punished by four or five years in a Siberian labor camp, and due to the influence of the Orthodox Church, homosexuality was seen as a moral failing. Tchaikovsky struggled in this atmosphere, and seems to have reached out to heterosexual marriage as a way to reconcile himself with the culture around him. The marriage lasted a whole two and a half months.
The Fourth Symphony was nicknamed “Fatum,” or “Fate,” and was written between 1877 and 1878 in the aftermath of that failed marriage. Luckily for Tchaikovsky, someone came along to ease his difficulties: the reclusive millionaire widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose husband’s railways and investments were left to her when he died a year previous. Soon she was writing to Tchaikovsky, commissioning parlor music and, eventually, offering him a stipend so large he could leave his job at the Moscow Conservatory.
Her one condition? The two would never be allowed to meet. It was to her that Tchaikovsky dedicated the Fourth Symphony, writing on the manuscript, “Dedicated to my Best Friend.” (Side note: if any of my best friends want to bankroll my career, text me.)
The first movement breaks open like a clap of thunder, with the brass and woodwinds bellowing a theme to which one could see Darth Vader walking out of a TIE Fighter. This is high drama, with towering horns and falling strings, like black clouds rolling across blighted sky: Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck that the first movement suggests "all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness... No haven exists. Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.”
Grim stuff, Pete. Got anything sweeter for us? The second movement hints at lighter moods and tones: The opening oboe sings a mournful tune with strings plucking in the background. The rain has lightened, and a yellow-green glow drenches the landscape. If you’ve lived here long enough, you know what that means: Yes, something dangerous is coming, but isn’t it pretty?
The third movement (a scherzo, or light, playful piece of music) makes me feel like that meme of the woman doing math in her head: Tchaikovsky is quickly and deftly playing melodies against one another, which is both delightful and kind of confusing, if you’re not someone who already understands it (which I’m not, in case that’s not obvious). While this is a clear break before the momentous conclusion, it’s also a technical flourish.
The fourth movement? Well, it slaps. Like the first movement, it opens with thunder, but unlike it, this finale reaches a blistering breakneck pace: the storm is here. We reencounter the melancholic opening theme with added orchestration, slowing it down and transforming it into something both triumphant and, honestly, depressing. In a way, that was Tchaikovsky’s genius: to reach at emotional extremes and find melodic ways to combine them, the way a bolt of lightning connects the earth to a cloud. The end is celebratory, the way you might emerge from a shelter to see that all is well, that the storm did not destroy everything, that you are indeed still alive.
In short, spring is a pretty wild, terrifying time to be alive, especially in Oklahoma where the thunder rolls. It’s an appropriate time for our orchestra to play this banger by Tchaikovsky, written in a period of both extreme storminess and blooming. Even as I write this, it’s raining. But after the rain, I’ve heard that May flowers are due to arrive.
If you go
Mercurial: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4
Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E 2nd St
Saturday, May 7, 7:30 PM
1) Lightning snakes around an anticyclonic tornado in Big Spring, Texas on May 22, 2016. Captured by storm chaser Aaron Jayjack. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. (File)
2) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Encyclopedia Britannica. (File)