Great Performances
book excerpt

Translated by Galina von Meck. Edited by Edward Garden and Nigel Gotteri.


17 February/1 March 1878

How much joy you've afforded me with your letter today, my matchless Nadezhda Filaretovna! How immeasurably lucky I am that you liked the symphony, that, listening to it, you experienced the same feelings I was full of when I was writing it and that my music made a deep impression on your heart.

You ask me whether there's a definite programme to the symphony.1 Usually when that question is put to me about one of my symphonic things, I answer: "none whatsoever." And it really is difficult to answer a question of that kind. How can one recount the undefined feelings one goes through when an instrumental composition without a definite subject is being written? It's a purely lyric process. It's the musical confession of a soul in which many things have welled up and which by its very nature is poured out in the form of sounds, similar to the way in which a lyric poet says what he has to say in verse. The difference is just that music has incomparably more powerful resources and a more subtle language at its disposal for expressing a thousand different nuances of inner feeling. Usually the "seed" of a future work suddenly appears, and quite unexpectedly. If the soil is fertile, i.e. if there is the disposition for work, this seed germanates with unbelievable strength and rapidity, peeps out above ground, pushes up a stem, then leaves and branches, and, finally, flowers. There is no other way I can define the creative process than by means of this analogy. The difficult part consists in ensuring that the germ does appear and find favourable conditions. All the rest happens of its own accord. There would be no point in my trying to express to you in words all the immeasurable bliss of the feeling that seizes me when the principal idea has manifested itself and begins to burgeon into definite shapes. Everything is forgotten, you become almost demented, everything within you trembles and pulsates, you can scarcely draft the sketches in time as one idea chases another. Sometimes during this magical process some jolt from outside will suddenly wake you from this trance. Somebody rings at the door, or a servant comes in, a clock strikes and reminds you that you have an appointment . . . Interruptions like this are hard, inexpressibly hard to bear. Sometimes the inspiration flies away for a while; you have to go and search for it, sometimes in vain. Very often the completely cold, rational, technical process has to be summoned to your aid. Perhaps this is why even in the greatest masters you can trace moments where there's a lack of organic cohesion, where a seam shows, parts of the whole are stuck together artificially. If the state of the artist's soul that is called "inspiration," and which I have just been attempting to describe to you, were to continue uninterrupted, it would be impossible to survive a single day. The strings would snap and the instrument would be smashed to smithereens! Just one thing is indispensable: that the principal idea and the general outline of all the separate parts should come not by means of "searching" but of their own accord, as a result of that supernatural, inscrutable, and inexplicable power that is called inspiration. In "our symphony" there "is" a programme, i.e. it is possible to explain in words what it attempts to express, and to you, only to you, I can and will indicate the meaning both of the whole work and of the separate movements. Needless to say, I can do this only in broad terms.

The introduction is the "seed" of the whole symphony, without doubt the principal idea:
Bars of music from the Fourth Symphony
This is "Fate," this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse towards happiness from achieving its aim, which guards jealously lest well-being and peace should be complete and unclouded, which hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles and unwaveringly and constantly poisons the soul. This force is invincible, and you will never overpower it. All that remains is to resign yourself and languish fruitlessly:
Bars of music from the Fourth Symphony
The desolate and hopeless feeling becomes stronger and more corrosive. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and give yourself up to daydreams:
Bars of music from the Fourth Symphony
O joy! at least a sweet and tender daydream has appeared. A gracious, bright human form has flitted by and is beckoning somewhere:
Bars of music from the Fourth Symphony
How good! How far away the obsessive first theme of the allegro sounds now! The daydreams have gradually taken possession of the soul completely. Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. Here it is, here is happiness! . . .

No! these were daydreams, and "Fate" wakes you from them:
Bars of music from the Fourth Symphony
So all life consists of an uninterrupted alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness . . . There is no refuge . . . You have to float on this sea until it engulfs you and plunges you to its depths. That, roughly, is the programme of the first movement.

The second movement of the symphony expresses another phase of depression. It's the melancholy feeling you get of an evening when, tired after work, you're sitting alone, you've picked up a book but it has slipped from your hand. There are teeming memories. It's sad that so much has "been and gone," yet pleasant to recall youth. There's nostalgia for the past, but no desire to start life over again. Life has wearied you. It's pleasant to have a rest and take stock. Memories abound. There were moments of joy when young blood bubbled and life was satisfying. There were hard times, too, irreplaceable losses. Now all this is somewhere far off. It's both sad yet somehow sweet to immerse yourself in the past.

The third movement expresses no definite feeling. It is made up of capricious arabesques, of the evanascent images which flit past in your imagination when you've had a drop of wine to drink and you're experiencing the first phase of inebriation. You are neither in a cheerful nor a sad frame of mind. You aren't thinking about anything; you give free reign to your imagination, and for some reason it has set about painting strange pictures . . . Among them a little tableau has come to mind of carousing peasants and a street song . . . Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession has passed by. These are the completely inconsequential images that run through your head as you are falling asleep. They have nothing in common with reality: they are strange, wild, and incoherent.

The fourth movement. If you can't find reasons for joy within yourself, look at others. Go among the common people. See what a good time they have abandoning themselves entirely to feelings of joy. A picture of folk celebrating a festival. Barely have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of other people's joys when implacable "Fate" appears again and reminds you of its existence. But the others are oblivious of you. They have not even turned round or glanced at you, and they have not noticed that you are lonely and sad. Oh, what a lovely time they're having! how lucky they are that all their emotions are direct and uncomplicated. Blame yourself and don't say that everything in the world is sad. There are simple but potent pleasures. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. Yes, it "is" possible to live.

That, then, my dear friend, is all I can tell you by way of explanation of the symphony. Of course it's unclear and incomplete. But it is characteristic of instrumental music to defy detailed analysis. 'Where words leave off, music begins,' as Heine has remarked.

It's late now. I'll say nothing about Florence in this letter, except that I shall always have a very, very pleasant memory of it. At the end of next week, around the 24th (by our calendar), I plan to depart for Switzerland, where I'd like to spend March quietly writing small pieces in various forms.

And so, by the time you've received this letter, my address will again be: Clarens, Canton de Vaud, Villa Richelieu.

Many thanks, my dear, for today's letter. There's still no word from my Moscow friends. I'll write to you in detail about their reaction.
P. Tchaikovsky

PS Before putting this letter into the envelope I have just reread it, and am horrified at the obscurity and inadequacy of the programme I'm sending you. For the first time in my life I have had to put into words and phrases musical thoughts and musical images. I've not managed to say it properly. I was down in the dumps last winter when the symphony was in the writing, and it is a faithful echo of what I was going through at that time. But that's what it is, an "echo." How can that be translated into clear and definite sequences of words? -- I can't, I don't know how. There are also so many things that I've forgotten. What remain are general recollections of the passionate and horrifying nature of the feelings I experienced. I am very, very anxious to know what my Moscow friends will have to say.

Au revoir,
P. Tchaikovsky

101 1Either no copy was made of the letter in which Nadezhda von Meck posed this question, or, as the Russian editors surmised, Letter 99 was not copied in its entirety; in view of its existing length, the latter possibility seems unlikely. (A third possibility is that she just wrote the question on a separate piece of paper.)

Excerpt from 'TO MY BEST FRIEND' CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN TCHAIKOVSKY AND NADEZHDA VON MECK 1876-1878. Translated by Galina von Meck. Edited by Edward Garden and Nigel Gotteri (1993). By permission of Oxford University Press.