VIDEO: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

Jonathan James takes us inside the music as part of our classical music series.

Discover nore about Tchaikovsky’s fateful Fourth Symphony.


Over the centuries composers have grappled with how to set fate to music. Beethoven did this, Verdi gives us three stubborn knocks, and Tchaikovsky in his fourth symphony gives us a shrill fanfare. So, after this menacing fanfare, it’s not surprising that the music breaks down and sounds, well, really quite anxious. Listen to this. [plays piano]

Even those accompanying chords they’re off the beat, make us feel nervous. And then right in the middle you get this rhythm. Which when you repeat it obsessively feels like someone trying to escape their own shadow. Just having a whole sentence of just that rhythm is what Tchaikovsky does so well in this first movement. And it’s unsettling because it kind of displaces the beat as well and that puts us on edge. [plays piano]

Fate comes thundering in again. So much of the rest of the symphony after the first movement is about well how do you escape fate? Maybe through vodka? [mumbles] Just drunken slurs I think, that on a flute [mumbles] almost sounds like a slide.

And ultimately Tchaikovsky says “the only way to escape fate of this kind of ferocity is to be swept away by the joy of the people and to go out and party” and he does this in one of the most thrilling finales he ever wrote. It really is rousing and fantastic. So this is the symphony where Tchaikovsky sets fate to flight. This is the symphony where we triumph, it’s going to be different in the fifth and sixth but here we are triumphant.

So which composer writes most compellingly about fate for you? Beethoven, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, maybe someone else? Do share your thoughts below and feel free to like and subscribe to these videos.

Thanks for watching.