The Kennedy Center

Slavonic March

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

In the fall of 1876, when Serbia was at war with Turkey and the Russians were supporting their fellow Slavs, Tchaikovsky was asked to compose an orchestral piece to be introduced in a concert for the benefit of wounded Serb veterans. He responded with the present work, which was known for many years by its French title, Marche slave. In his letters, Tchaikovsky referred to it as his "Russo-Serbian March"; he completed the score on October 17, 1876, and the first performance took place six weeks later (November 17), in Moscow, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting.

Serbian folk tunes constitute the principal thematic material in the piece, with Russian airs introduced for symbolic support. (Tchaikovsky quoted one of the latter, the national anthem God Save the Tsar, in several ceremonial works in addition to this one--most conspicuously in the 1812 Overture, which concludes this evening's concert.) In addition to its stirring character, the music is distinguished by considerable subtlety and even occasional humor in Tchaikovsky's colorful handling of these materials.

Less than a year after the work's premiere, Tchaikovsky wrote to his sister of his first Moscow appearance as a conductor: "I was unskillful and nervous, but still I managed to conduct, with considerable success, my 'Russo-Serbian March' in the Opera House. Henceforward I shall take every opportunity of conducting." Some years later, in his concert tours in both Europe and America, it was the Slavonic March that he favored most frequently to bring a single event or a series of concerts to a rousing conclusion. Hans Kindler followed the composer's example in the National Symphony Orchestra's very first concert, in November 1931.