Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Opus 17, Little Russian

PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, in the district of Viatka, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: Between 1879-81

WORLD PREMIERES: Tchaikovsky composed the first version of this symphony between June and November 1872. On on February 7, 1873, Nicolai Rubinstein conducted the first performance in Moscow. Tchaikovsky made a few changes in orchestration immediately after the premiere, then substantially revised the work in December 1879. That version, the one heard at these concerts, was introduced in Saint Petersburg on February 12, 1881, with Karl Zike conducting

US PREMIERE: December 7, 1883. Leopold Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony Society at Steinway Hall, New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— December 1939. Igor Stravinsky conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2010. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and strings

DURATION: About 33 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Though by some margin the shortest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, this is not a “little Russian” symphony as distinct from a “great Russian” symphony. The nickname, conferred by Nicolai Dimitrievich Kashkin, a Moscow music critic and acquaintance of Tchaikovsky’s, refers to Little Russia, an affectionate name for Ukraine. Kashkin thought Little Russian an apt nickname for the altogether sensible reason that the work includes several Little Russian folk tunes. Tchaikovsky had begun the work in Little Russia. His younger sister Alexandra Ilinishna, known in the family as Sasha, had married Lev Davidov in 1860, and the Davidov estate at Kamenka, near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, became a home away from home for Tchaikovsky, a place where he could always find the warmly nurturing family life for which he longed, but that he could not establish on his own. It was at Kamenka that he began the symphony and where he heard some of the Davidov servants sing the tunes he used. Working in an uncommonly sunny mood, he continued to write at Kiev and on his summer travels with his brother Modest, and he completed the score in Moscow, where he had to return to resume his teaching duties at the Conservatory.

In his letters that fall, Tchaikovsky laments his loneliness, missing the meat pastries, the pelmeny, at his father’s house and wishing that the Davidovs might move to Moscow. But in what he says about his new symphony he is optimistic. He played the finale at a Christmas party at the Rimsky-Korsakovs and recounts how he was nearly torn to pieces by the enraptured company, his hostess insisting that he should make a piano duet arrangement immediately. The premiere too went well, and on February 5, 1873, he was able to tell his father, “My symphony was played here last week with great success. I was called for many times and cheered repeatedly. The success was so great that the symphony will be played again at the tenth concert, and a subscription has been started to make me a present. Also I received 300 rubles from the Musical Society. . . . I am delighted with all the success and the material profit that has accrued from it.”

The enthusiasm of the Rimsky-Korsakovs, Maestro and Madame, was significant. At this time Russian musical life was split into two factions, the westward-facing, Saint Petersburg-based cosmopolitans, of whom Tchaikovsky was by far the most important, and the Muscovite kuchka, the Mighty Handful, also known as The Five—Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—who wanted to create a national style of Russian music based on folk materials. In 1868-69 Tchaikovsky had published piano duet arrangements of fifty Russian folk songs, many of which make appearances in works of his as familiar as the Serenade for Strings, the Andante cantabile of the String Quartet No. 1, and the 1812 Overture. With the advent of the Little Russian Symphony, the kuchka and their supporters thought they had won an ally in Tchaikovsky. In retrospect, though, we see that folk music was never more than a condiment for Tchaikovsky and nationalism never a passion, and that by temperament and affinity, he was really a symphonist in the German style.

THE MUSIC  Like almost every major work of Tchaikovsky, this one begins with a fairly slow introduction. A single horn sustains one of the notes of the peremptory chord with which the symphony begins, and that note is the first of a Ukrainian song, “Down by Mother Volga.” John Warrack points out in his Tchaikovsky biography that it “also bears some relation to a city song, ‘O You Winter, Little Winter’; it was a student favorite and associated with the Cossack rebel Stenka Razin.” Its downward droops and its way of traversing and re-traversing the same figures give it an unmistakably Russian flavor. Something exotic is contributed by the odd seven-measure phrase length. After the horn comes the turn of the bassoon, and that instrument is accompanied by plucked cellos and basses whose figurations resemble blurred echoes of the tune itself. The horn picks it up again, this time against a background of sustained strings and soft but nervously pulsating woodwind chords. This procedure of presenting an unchanging tune against a constantly changing background, something Tchaikovsky probably learned from the delightful Kamarinskaya of Glinka, the “great avatar of Russian music,” as Stravinsky called him, sustains the entire ample and imaginative introduction. That section comes full circle when we hear the tune played again on two unaccompanied horns.

Then Tchaikovsky moves briskly into a sonata movement at a lively tempo. The atmosphere is quite different now, though it is not farfetched to hear some relationship between the new melodies and the Volga song, and after a while, the latter actually reappears, first on the clarinet, then on a succession of wind instruments. The development, while not complex, is skillfully laid out; in fact, the development sections in Tchaikovsky’s later works are not always this sure. The movement as a whole has an interestingly imagined, effective shape. I hear it as a broad crescendo (in intensity, that is, not literally in volume), that is cut off by a sudden and touching subsidence in which “Mother Volga” makes one final appearance. This last time the song is again given to the horn, but with the accompaniment previously associated with the bassoon, while to the bassoon falls the task of tagging a ruminative echo onto the tune itself.

This is a symphony without any really slow music, nothing slower at any rate than the not terribly slow Andante sostenuto of the introduction. Where we might now expect a slow movement, Tchaikovsky gives us a march, music he recycled from Undine, an opera he began and abandoned in 1869. This is like a slightly exotic path off the main road that leads from Schubert to Mahler. Tchaikovsky uses it as the anchor of a simple but charming rondo, whose second episode, a clarinet tune with flute accompaniment, is another Little Russian song, “Spin, o my spinner.” The movement ends with a “disintegrating” coda of the kind invented by Beethoven for the funeral march of the Eroica.

Next comes a brilliant scherzo. It carries reminiscences of the corresponding movement of Borodin’s Symphony No. 1 (1867) and, far more familiar to most of us, of the “Queen Mab” Scherzo in Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette. In contrast to the 3/8 measures of the scherzo itself, the trio is a chattering movement in duple meter, perhaps a folk song (but, if so, not yet firmly identified as such).

A portentous—mock-portentous, that is—introduction prepares the spirited and swift finale that so delighted the gathering chez Rimsky-Korsakov. The main theme is a song called “The Crane.” This, too, Tchaikovsky treats with that same Glinkaesque “changing background” technique of orchestral variation that he used so effectively with “Down by Mother Volga” at the beginning of the symphony. For contrast, he introduces a melody whose delightfully quirky metric suggests either a peg-legged waltz or a rumba. A little later, after a make-believe catastrophe, this is developed in a more staccato style, and at that point one understands very clearly one of the reasons Stravinsky was so fond of this piece. The play catastrophe returns, emphasized this time with a fortissimo stroke on the tam-tam, and then comes the coda. Tchaikovsky could be insistent when it came to letting you know that a piece was about to be over, and this is a case in point.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC

Recordings: Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)  |  Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos)  |  Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  |  Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony (Vox Box)

Online: Keeping Score: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: A multi-volume life-and-works set titled Tchaikovsky, edited by David Brown (Norton)  |  Tchaikovsky Remembered, edited by Brown (Faber)  |  Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes, edited by Alexander Poznansky (Indiana University Press)  |  Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden (Bantam)


(May 2018)