Composed: 1872, rev. 1879-80
Length: 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam), and strings
Relations between Tchaikovsky and "The Five," that influential band of Russian nationalist composers, were always a little tender. Those five - Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, and Rimsky-Korsakov - admired Tchaikovsky's talents but were suspicious of his conservatory training and his use of Western forms. For his part, Tchaikovsky regarded The Five as talented amateurs limited by their insistence on using native materials. Relations between the factions were never bad, but they had little to do with each other. Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, in fact, occasioned one of their few moments of cordial contact.
Tchaikovsky composed this Symphony in 1872 and revised it seven years later. The Second is Tchaikovsky's shortest symphony, but what makes this music distinctive is his use of folktunes for some of its themes. This was a technique favored by The Five, and Rimsky-Korsakov in particular was impressed when Tchaikovsky played this music for him on the piano shortly before the premiere (Rimsky's wife liked the last movement so much that she wanted to make a two-piano arrangement of it). Scholars have identified specific folktunes in this Symphony, but much of the thematic material has a folksong quality, even if it is Tchaikovsky's own. The authentic folktunes that Tchaikovsky employed here come from the Ukraine, a region sometimes known as "Little Russia" (19th-century Ukrainians were unhappy about that nickname, their relations with Russia being as much a source of friction then as they are today). Tchaikovsky wrote down these tunes in his sketchbook after hearing peasants sing them while he was on vacation at the family home in Kamenka. The nickname "Little Russian," however, did not originate with the composer - it was coined by the music critic Nicholas Kashkin.
The first movement opens with a long solo for French horn based on the Ukrainian folksong "Down by Mother Volga." Over the course of the lengthy introduction, this theme repeats several times, harmonized and colored differently on each appearance. The music leaps ahead at the Allegro vivo, which itself sounds folksong-derived. Tchaikovsky may have had difficulty with symphonic form, but this movement is beautifully-made: the development treats both the main theme of the exposition and the horn theme from the introduction. It is a mark of Tchaikovsky's growing sophistication as a composer that he turns a fragment of the principal theme into an accompaniment figure - that chattering little figure takes on unusual power in this transformation - then concludes by bringing back the horn melody from the very beginning.
The Second Symphony has no true slow movement. The second movement, marked Andante marziale, was originally the wedding march from Tchaikovsky's ill-fated opera Undine, which he destroyed before it was produced. Over the timpani's steady tread, woodwinds sing the little march tune; a more lyric second idea follows. The third movement, Allegro molto vivace, is a propulsive scherzo in ABA form. Metric units are quite short here: the outer sections are in 3/8, the trio in 2/8.
The opening of the finale has an unusual model: the finale of Beethoven's First Symphony. In both cases, the composer lets the main theme emerge, bit by bit, and then take wing. Tchaikovsky's brassy main theme here bears a striking resemblance to the "Promenade" of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, though the Tchaikovsky was written first - it is in fact a derivation of the Ukrainian folktune "The Crane." This theme accelerates until it suddenly is transformed into the athletic main idea, and Tchaikovsky offers a lilting second idea in the violins. The music reaches a superheated climax on a tam-tam stroke, and out of the silence Tchaikovsky drives the music on to the exciting close.
It is no surprise that this finale - with its imaginative ideas about structure, unusual harmonic progressions, and use of folktunes - should have delighted Rimsky-Korsakov. This movement was in fact Tchaikovsky's own favorite.
- Eric Bromberger annotates programs for many organizations, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society, and San Diego's Mainly Mozart Festival.