July 01, 2000

The Essential Tchaikovsky

Of Tchaikowsky’s symphony apart from its performance I need only say that it is highly characteristic of him. In the first movement, the only one with a distinctly poetic basis, he is, as ever, “le Byron de nos jours”; and in the later ones, where he is confessedly the orchestral voluptuary, he is Byronic in that too. The most notable merit of the symphony is its freedom from the frightful effeminacy of most modern works of the romantic school.

While some of its thematic material is engaging and well presented and the orchestration is interesting throughout, there is no trace of development in the symphonic sense, but merely a succession of repetitions and a sequence of climactic runs that often become hysterical.


These comically contrasting opinions pertain to the same symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. The first is from a review of the English premiere, which took place under the composer’s baton at a London Philharmonic concert on June 1, 1893. (Tchaikovsky was passing through on his way to Cambridge, where he was to receive an honorary doctorate alongside Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saens and Grieg, certifying his status in the company of the contemporary great.) The review appeared six days later in The World, over the byline of its regular critic, one Corno di Bassetto, who had just started writing plays under his given name, George Bernard Shaw. The other extract is from a venerable textbook, Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization (1941), a work that for at least a quarter-century played a controlling role in defining and defending canonical musical values for the English-speaking peoples. (“Tchaikovsky,” it took care to inform its readers, “does not belong in the company of the great of music.”)

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