Tchaikovsky did the bulk of the work on his Second Symphony during the summer of 1872 and completed it that November. In part, the symphony itself resulted from criticism: It recycled fragments of his opera Undine, which had been rejected by the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg because of the “ultramodern direction of its music, slipshod orchestration, and unmelodiousness.” But the content that really distinguishes the symphony, especially within Tchaikovsky’s output, are the folksongs from Ukraine – or “Little Russia” as the region was historically known – the composer peppered throughout the work.
The original version of the Symphony premiered Jan 26, 1873 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow. Six years later the composer gave it a thorough overhaul; this new version premiered in St. Petersburg on February 12, 1881.
The symphony’s first movement opens with a solo horn playing the first of the folksongs, “Down by Mother Volga.” The Allegro vivo begins with an insistent little figure in the oboe, clarinets, and bassoon, derived from the folksong, which is then taken up by the strings. Tchaikovsky contrasts this with a more relaxed theme, introduced principally by the oboe, and works through this material over the movement’s course.
The finale is a grand set of variations on another Ukrainian folksong, “The Crane,” presented first in resplendent garb by the full orchestra, then, almost hesitantly after an outburst from the percussion, by the first violins, piano. Tchaikovsky plays around with this tune over the course of the movement, introducing a graceful little countersubject about three minutes in, but, despite its charm, he abandons it almost immediately in favor of the raucous folksong-inspired festivities.
— J. M.