Discover more from momentum
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and the Enduring Legacy of Damocles
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony brings up the struggle for happiness in life, and suggests an answer.
Tchaikovsky composed his Symphony no.4 between 1877 and 1878, after the disintegration of his traumatic marriage with Antonina Miliukova, a former student whom he married as a cover for his sexuality. He dedicated the work to Nadezhda von Meck, to whom he also wrote a series of letters detailing both the process of writing, as well as an overview of the features of the piece. It is in these letters that the figure of Damocles arises - a figure who has permeated history; from the ancient to modern times.
In his ‘programme’ for the symphony, Tchaikovsky describes the opening as ‘Fate; this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal … which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul’. Damocles is a character in the legend the ‘Sword of Damocles’, which was popularised by the Roman philosopher Cicero. Damocles was a courtier to Dionysius I of Syracuse in Sicily from 405 to 367 BCE, from whom Damocles learnt a valuable lesson. The parable goes that after Damocles claimed that Dionysius was living a blissful, easy life, Dionysius asked him whether he wanted to experience it for himself. Damocles was placed in a throne, surrounded by a banquet and slaves, but crucially, with a naked sword suspended above his head by a single thread, preventing him from enjoying the feast. Thus, Damocles realised that men who possess great power are also prey to great danger - a sentiment that was very visible in the way which Dionysius lived his life; sleeping in a room surrounded by a moat, and only allowing his daughters to shave his beard, from fear of assassination.
His own history seems to have taught Tchaikovsky that happiness was never possible - that a ‘fateful force’ would always get in the way - an idea which was probably crystallised for him by the failing of his marriage, resulting in him being (in his own words) ‘severely depressed’. Clearly, we can assume that this realisation about the elusive nature of happiness was unpleasant, but what is notable, and contradictory to this idea in his letters, is Tchaikovsky’s enthusiasm for the symphony. He described it as ‘the crowning glory of all my musical achievements’, and repeatedly refers to it as his ‘child’. We can only guess why he had such particular enthusiasm - possibly it was the technical elements, because he claims that ‘as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development’. However, there is very likely another reason why he was so invested in the piece, especially as he states that he did not want it to ‘consist of empty playing with chords, rhythms and modulations’ (dismissing the idea that the technical elements were the dominant allure). Tchaikovsky describes the process of writing as ‘an unburdening of the soul in music’, bringing up the idea that he used writing as a method for transferring his fraught emotions out of his mind. But then surely, the Symphony no.4 would not be his favourite - surely, it would represent even more, a distressing period in his life.
Tchaikovsky seemed to value the symphony not purely for personal reasons, but as an outward expression - a way of connecting. When he received criticism that his symphony was programmatic, he replied ‘I just do not understand why you consider this to be a defect. It is the opposite I fear … the programme is such that it is impossible to formulate in words … Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed?’ In fact, in regards to his letters to von Meck, describing the messages within the symphony, Tchaikovsky commented that he was ‘horrified at the incoherence and inadequacy of the programme. Nevertheless, we can still look towards his programme for some of the message he was so desperate to convey - the rough outline of the work, from his letters, appears to be the following:
The presence of the sword of Damocles ‘poisoning the soul’, which must be ‘endured, hopelessly’.
The coming of a distraction, a ‘gentle day-dream’, where ‘some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away’, so that ‘everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten’.
The realisation that it was merely a dream, and ‘thus all life is an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness’.
Weariness from life, ‘regretting the past, and yet not wishing to begin life over again’, followed by ‘vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication’.
This programme follows the symphony through the first three movements. Tchaikovsky’s description of the fourth movement, however, seems to be more instructional - ‘if within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others … rejoice in the rejoicing of others’. Thus, it seems that Tchaikovsky loved this symphony because he expressed not only truths he had learned from experience, but coping mechanisms, a way to find joy in life - a great feat for someone severely depressed.
In 1961, President John F Kennedy gave a speech to the UN, where he said ‘Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness’. Clearly Tchaikovsky’s message is one that is still relevant, and would certainly have been so during the Cold War. Surely experience is the best teacher, and Tchaikovsky’s experiences, which he expresses through his music, are worth exploring. So, next time you are feeling that happiness is unattainable, look to those around you and rejoice in their rejoicing.
Thank you for reading momentum. Please subscribe (for free!) to receive new articles, and to support my work.