During the composition of the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that he wanted "very much" to dedicate it to her, and that he would write on it "Dedicated to My Best Friend". He had begun composing the symphony not long after von Meck had entered his life. He would complete it in the aftermath of his catastrophic marriage and claimed she would find in it "an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions." The dedication was significant in more than one way. One important facet of the paternalistic nature of Russian society was that, in artistic patronage, patron and artist were considered equals. Dedications of works to patrons were not gestures of humble gratitude but expressions of artistic partnership. By dedicating the Fourth Symphony to her, he was affirming her as an equal partner in its creation.
It is also due to von Meck that, at her request, Tchaikovsky wrote a program explaining the symphony. This action encouraged numerous writers to quote it instead of focusing on the symphony's purely musical qualities, including what Hans Keller termed "one of the most towering symphonic structures in our whole literature" in the opening movement. This program hindered acceptance of the symphony for many years, prejudicing Alfred Einstein and other musicologists against it.
Despite its overall negative impact on the symphony, the composer's program gives one very telling clue regarding the work's musical architecture. Assertions to the effect that "the first movement represents Fate" are oversimplifications: according to a letter the composer wrote to Madame von Meck in 1878, it is actually the fanfare first heard at the opening ("the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony") that stands for "Fate", with this being "the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness ... There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain". As the composer explained it, the programme of the first movement is—"roughly"—that "all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness ...". He went on: "No haven exists ... Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths".
The composer's description of the symphony's opening fanfare as a metaphor for "Fate" becomes more telling in the context of a letter he wrote Sergei Taneyev. He wrote Taneyev that the Fourth Symphony was both program music and a reflection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the central idea of its program. Keller has mentioned a parallel between the four-note motif which opens Beethoven's Fifth and the fanfare at the outset of Tchaikovsky's Fourth. Like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky uses his fanfare as a structural marker. Moreover, because of both the length and unorthodox form of the symphony, he may have felt using such a marker was a musical necessity.