Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian” (Opus 17) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Program Notes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky portraitNicknamed ‘Little Russian”, this work is one of Tchaikovsky’s jovial and uplifting compositions, utilising traditional Ukrainian folk tunes which helped it gain fervent approval of The Five upon its premier in 1873. The piece itself was written at his sister’s estate in Kamenka in the Ukraine, where the charismatic composer spent a month labouring on the work.

Much of his early compositions are fraught with tension, as he struggles to reconcile Russian individuality and Western genres. This can especially be seen by his reworking of the first movement and rescoring of the third after the second symphony premiered.

The first movement begins in C minor with a relatively slow tempo, later speeding up to an animated allegro vivo. Tchaikovsky adapts the Ukrainian folk song Down by Mother Volga placing it in the horns.

Originally a bridal march, the second movement has an air of playfulness in its beginning. Another folk tune is used, this one entitled Spin, Oh My Spinner, giving the piece a decided character, as the melody follows the adventures of a curious child.

Although the third movement is the only piece that does not strictly use folk tunes, Tchaikovsky composes a melody that is immediately recognisable as folk-like. The whole movement is rather fleeting and rushed, with the string and wind sections conversing a great deal, ending with a fluctuating dynamic passage to introduce the final movement.

Of a moderate tempo and in C major, the last movement begins with a dramatic fanfare in the brass. Again, Tchaikovsky uses a folk tune, The Crane. The melody being more recognisable than the others he uses in the symphony, is left for the string section to characterise and develop. To end the monumental symphony, Tchaikovsky employs simplistic rhythms with rich harmonies and majestic percussion giving the piece the long, dramatic send off it was building towards.

This symphony was almost delayed in its early stages. In his travels, Tchaikovsky lied to a postmaster, claiming to be a prince, so that the postal worker would tend to an important travel issue on Tchaikovsky’s behalf. Consequently, he began to suspect the postmaster had opened his luggage and upon learning his true identity, had and stolen the initial sketches of the symphony. As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about as his luggage was untouched. It also turned out that the postmaster himself was named Tchaikovsky, a coincidence the composer frequently reminisced on with fondness.

Tchaikovsky had a certain flair for emotional and stirring melodies, with this symphony he diverges from his usual pensive inclinations and presents a more enjoyable and accessible symphony for his audience.

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