Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, was composed in the spring of 1877. Tchaikovsky talked about a symphony he is writing on the subject of fate in his letters. The work was played first in Moscow in February 1878. The Symphony is scored for a piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A, B-flat), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses. Tchaikovsky was financially backed by a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who sent him a monthly stipend in return for his steady correspondence with her about his music. The two never met in person but many letters remain from their steady correspondence. Those letters offer an insight into the perspective on his compositions. Tchaikovsky wrote about this symphony, "Never yet has any of my orchestral works cost me so much labour, but I have never yet felt such love for any of my things.…Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that this symphony is better than anything I have done so far.
This kind of enthusiasm was a bit strange for Tchaikovsky. He generally expressed dissatisfaction with his works. In this case, he felt that he had exceeded even his own demanding standards. The symphony score bore a dedication “to my best friend,” a reference to Von Meck. She accepted the honour but only on grounds of anonymity.
Tchaikovsky explained that the opening fanfare has to sound ominous like the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The opening is sounded out by french horns and bassoons. The motif represents fate hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. The motif has to be suggestive of gloom that is all-consuming and it has to obscure all hints of happiness that tend to appear in the form of light melodies in triple time, suggestive of waltzes. In the second movement, Tchaikovsky presents a continued expression of melancholy that is felt when you are lonely at the end of a weary day.
The third movement with its unique pizzicato dominance represents fleeting images that pass through a person's imagination when he is a bit flippant and whimsical and out of this emerges the finale with its positive energy. The energetic drive is broken with the dark theme from the opening movement as the motif reappears to let the listeners be reminded that fate cannot be conquered and its force cannot be crushed. The symphony concludes with letting the people know that among the gloom, you can look at the plight of others around you and take solace by accepting whatever life offers you and how to bear it.
Yevgeny Mravinsky has given a magnificent performance with the Leningrad Symphony and it was issued as a vinyl record on Deutsche Grammophon. The energy of that performance in 1960 is still preserved and no conductor has surpassed the sheer vitality of this performance. The majestic brass and the discipline of the strings is the trademark of Leningrad and Mravinsky. This particular performance was recorded during the visit of Leningrad Philharmonic to London and the capture was done at Wembley Town Hall in London.