The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (Little Russian)

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Tchaikovsky composed his Second Symphony between June and November of 1872; Nikolai Rubinstein conducted the first performance on February 7, 1873, in Moscow. The score was not published, however, and Tchaikovsky revised it substantially in 1879; the final version was introduced in St. Petersburg on February 12, 1882, under Karl Zike. Igor Stravinsky, a conspicuous champion of this work at a time when it was seldom performed, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of it, on January 8, 1941; the most recent one, on July 20, 1996, at Wolf Trap, was conducted by Barry Jekowsky.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and strings. Approximate duration, 36 minutes.

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Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies have none of the autobiographical or confessional features of the unarguably greater Nos. 4, 5 and 6; there is instead a pronounced feeling for the folk idiom in the early works, which seem more closely related to his splendid ballet scores than to his later symphonies. The Second, which represents perhaps the closest approach among his symphonies to the artistic philosophy of his avowedly nationalist compatriots (there are citations of folk tunes in all four movements), is also the most unreservedly joyous of his symphonies; nowhere among all his concert works is he shown in such an abundance of infectious good humor.

When Tchaikovsky completed the original version of this work, in November 1872, he had composed three operas but very little orchestral music other than his First Symphony and the overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet . Both of those works had been revised by then, and each was to be subjected to further revision some years later; the Second Symphony was especially important to him as a conscious and largely successful effort to strengthen his grasp of symphonic form. The premiere was so successful that Nikolai Rubinstein, who conducted, was obliged to present the work again a month later, but in this case, too, Tchaikovsky came to be dissatisfied with what he had done. In December 1879 he wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck to tell her he was revising the Second Symphony:

How I thank the fates that caused Bessel to fail in his contract and never print this score! How much seven years can mean when a man is striving for progress in his work! Is it possible that seven years from now I shall look upon what I write today as I look now at my music written in 1872? I know it is possible, because perfection, the ideal, is boundless, and in seven years I shall not be old.

In the revision the first movement was entirely rewritten and the scherzo significantly altered. The second movement alone was preserved in its original form, and the finale was allowed to stand except for an "enormous cut" which Tchaikovsky felt was needed for the sake of balance. His friend Nikolai Kashkin, a prominent critic, retained an affectionate preference for the earlier version, but by 1879, with Swan Lake, Francesca da Rimini, the Fourth Symphony and two popular concertos under his belt, Tchaikovsky had become a seasoned and sure-handed craftsman, and it is generally felt that his experience and judgment impelled him to the right move. (Those curious about the original version may hear it in a Chandos recording made by the London Symphony Orchestra under Geoffrey Simon.)

It was Kashkin, incidentally, who gave this symphony its sobriquet. "Little Russia" was a term used in those days for the Ukraine, and Tchaikovsky made use of Ukrainian folk songs in both of the work's outer movements. The first of these is Down by Mother Volga , one of the many songs about the colorful Cossack leader Stenka Razin, whose "rebellious head" was cut off in Moscow's Red Square in 1671; the tune makes its appearance in the voice of the solo horn immediately after the single brisk chord that opens the work, and it serves as the basis of the entire introduction. The first movement proper begins with the woodwinds' statement of a more animated theme; a second subject, softer and more lyrical (and related to the folk-song theme), is introduced by the oboe, but it is not heard in the development. The movement ends with a restatement of the introductory material.

One reason Tchaikovsky was able to allow the second movement to stand without changes when he revised the score was that it already represented a sort of revision: it is an adaptation of the wedding march in the final act of his second opera, Undine, which he composed early in 1869 and withheld from both performance and publication. A fairy-tale atmosphere prevails in this rondo, in which the marc is introduced in a quasi-syncopated statement by clarinets over measured drumbeats. The second theme is in Tchaikovsky's characteristically songful vein, and the third is taken from a Russian folk song, Spin, O My Spinner.

The scherzo is an especially vivacious specimen, possibly patterned after the Queen Mab Scherzo in Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette . (Berlioz conducted several concerts of his own music in St. Petersburg and Moscow at the end of 1867, and left a profound impression on Russian musicians.) In the endearing trio a simple folk tune is played first by the winds with pizzicato string accompaniment, and then given to the strings themselves.

The rumbustious finale, one of Tchaikovsky's own favorites among his compositions, begins rather like Mussorgsky's "Great Gate at Kiev," the final section of his Pictures at an Exhibition (with even a sort of "pre-echo" of Ravel's famous orchestral setting)--an apt coincidence, since Kiev is the Ukrainian capital and it is a fragmented variant of the Ukrainian song The Crane that is proclaimed by the brass choir. Once the brasses extend the theme enough to establish its identity, a dramatic drum roll signals the end of the introductory gesture and the strings take up the full tune in a mischievous, scampering manner. The contrasting lyric theme, too, has the character of a folk song, but it is pure Tchaikovsky, as is the brilliant and spirited working-out of these elements.

Stravinsky, who conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, introduced it into the repertory of several other American orchestras and, somewhat less conspicuously, championed Tchaikovsky's other early symphonies as well. By the time he conducted it here, the NSO, under its founding conductor Hans Kindler, had made the premiere recording of Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony (called the "Polish," with far less justification than No. 2 is called the "Little Russian"), some of whose motifs Stravinsky had used a few years earlier in his ballet score The Fairy's Kiss, all of whose melodic material came from Tchaikovsky.