Skip to page content

Composed: 1875

Length: c. 45 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony is the Cinderella of the set, being less often performed than the others and left too often in the shadows. It differs from them also in being set in a major key and having five movements, not four. Unlike the first two symphonies, its composition gave Tchaikovsky no particular trouble, although he later felt it offered nothing particularly new and gave signs of a failing inspiration. Let the listener be the judge.

Between the Second and Third Symphonies Tchaikovsky composed two operas, Snegurochka and Vakula the Smith. The Second String Quartet and the Piano Concerto No. 1 belong to this period also. Like its predecessor, the Third Symphony was the fruit of a relaxed summer period spent in the country, away from Moscow. Between mid-June and mid-August, 1875, he stayed as a guest of friends and relatives in three different places and sketched and orchestrated the entire Symphony in that period. But it was no hasty work: “I don’t sit for hours at a time, but walk a good deal,” he told some friends. The music flowed easily, and after the first performance that November in Moscow, he wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov: “It seems to me that the Symphony does not present any particularly successful idea, but technically it’s a step forward. Above all I’m satisfied with the first movement and both scherzos, the second of which is very difficult.”

Tchaikovsky’s departure from the standard four movements allows us to see the Symphony’s equilibrium from a different angle: the weightiest movement is at the center, the Andante elegiaco, with scherzos either side, and discursive first and last movements to complete the frame with a degree of symmetry. The second movement, the Alla tedesca, is the intruder, but its charm fully justifies Tchaikovsky’s decision to include it. Or perhaps it was an irrational instinct that led him to compose such a movement for that position in the Symphony. Composers, especially composers of exceptional genius, have every right to disturb normal patterns and provide no excuses for doing so. The movement is a waltz “in German style” with more than a hint of ballet. Swan Lake was the next work to follow. The finale has a “tempo di polacca,” which has caused the symphony to be nicknamed the “Polish,” but it is neither German nor Polish, just Russian.

The second scherzo is more demanding on the players, requiring very swift exchanges and runs. There is an unexpected entry for trombone, and in the Trio the horns share a long held D, as it were in the middle of a contest, while winds and strings knock the ball back and forth between them.

One of the oddest features of the Symphony is the spare, halting funeral march at the beginning, suggesting a narrative that might have been in Tchaikovsky’s mind even if he never revealed it. Another is the banality of the second main tune in the finale, especially when it returns in a noisy parade, grandly scored for the full orchestra. The appearance of a fugue in the finale can also sound routine, as if other options had been considered and rejected. For despite the solid workmanship of the first movement’s main Allegro, it is the central three movements that make the strongest impression, as Tchaikovsky may have intended.

Perhaps he made difficulties for himself by including no Russian themes, no interconnections between movements, and no overwhelming climaxes. For once Tchaikovsky is not laying his heart bare, and for many people that is to be admired. His popularity largely rests, it must be said, on his willingness to give in wholeheartedly to unbuttoned emotion. Those of us who suffer from any kind of inhibition respond strongly, if perhaps guiltily, to the spectacle of a composer pouring out his heart and soul, especially when that composer was the victim, all his life, of devastating nervous strain. The Third Symphony should be judged alongside the works of more restrained composers, such as those of Mendelssohn or Schumann, and in that context it will not be found wanting.

As the forerunner of such mighty works as the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, though, the Third may seem more of an hors d’œuvre than a main entrée. Within two years of its composition Tchaikovsky suffered the unimaginable crisis of his doomed marriage, which, for all the pain it caused, led him to a higher level of maturity as a composer. It marks a dividing line between the first three and the last three symphonies. His music had been highly accomplished from the start: the First Symphony is far from immature. But after 1877 the music carries a stronger message as if the path between composer and audience had been cleared, and all the brush and entanglements swept aside.

-Hugh Macdonald