I was never a particularly musically astute kid.
I liked music, certainly. I listened to it. But I was never one of those people who went out of my way to find new music, or to learn about bands or composers. I was a music consumer, not a music fan. I listened to the albums my parents owned. Harry Chapin, Crystal Gale, Helen Reddy, Jesus Christ Superstar, the concert for Bangladesh.
MTV changed that, for me.
When MTV came along I was entranced. I loved, loved, the VJs, the bands, the costumes, the music. I became a fan of certain bands based on their music videos, on the clothes they wore and the way they implied a depth of world I had never considered. What was Madonna trying to say in “Borderline”? What were Wendy and Lisa in Prince’s Revolution implying? These were things I pondered.
When I moved out in order to go to boarding school I took a few cassette tapes with me. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. The soundtrack for Pretty in Pink. And I took a battered cassette that wasn’t mine. It was my father’s, and it was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor.
I think this was the first piece of classical music I ever truly loved. I liked the 1812 Overture a lot, don’t get me wrong! Every year the Chicago Pops played the 1812 as the finale to the Fourth of July fireworks display on the lakefront. The fireworks were timed to the canon at the end, and who could resist that? Not me. But I found the 4th Symphony while I was poking through the collection of tapes in my dad’s office desk, looking for a copy of the 1812 Overture. I liked Tchaikovsky, I reasoned. I might try this.
It opens with this, this brassy clarion call, this shake of one’s shirt collar. It clears the mind, the opening of the 4th. And it ends with a Finale that takes no prisoners, accepts no quarter. It swoops and swirls and drags a person along.
At least, if that person is me.
I used to listen to the 4th while studying, at least, until I started listening to Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and all the other music of my roommates while studying. To this day the 4th steadies me, focuses my thoughts, calms me down and wakes me up.
It is, for these purposes, better than smoking. Those of you who have ever longed for that first cigarette of the day know whereof I speak. This is, to be clear, some serious shit.
I’ve looked up, or tried to look up, information about the 4th. Who it was written for, and why. What the story is. I didn’t find out much. It’s not like the 1812, with its story of war and bloodshed and last-minute rescues. The 4th is just, well, a piece of music. I don’t know that it’s supposed to be about anything.
That said, I can tell you what it is about.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor is a story of standing one’s ground. It’s about not letting things get to you, or get at you. It’s about staying firm, staying on task, staying focused. It’s a symphony of resolve. It music for keeping your chin up and knowing what you intend.
This isn’t combative music and it’s not forward momentum or charging through. It’s about knowing yourself. It’s about listening to the quiet in your head and shouting the exultation moments later. The finale hurtles wildly towards a conclusion that was pre-ordained from that first brassy call. At the end of the race you haven’t moved. But neither have you been moved.
I mean, that’s either what the symphony is about or it’s massively presumptive wish-fulfillment identification on my part. You know how that goes.
Either way, I love this piece of music.