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Symphony No. 3 "Polish"

About the Work

Pyotr Tchaikovsky
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Quick Look Composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor / Yuja Wang, piano, plays Chopin Dec. 6 - 8, 2012
© Peter Laki

Symphony No. 3 in D major ("Polish"), Op. 29

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893.  He composed his Third Symphony in 1875; the first performance was led by Nikolai Rubinstein in Moscow, on November 19 of the same year.  The United States premiere (which was also the first performance outside Russia) took place in New York on February 8, 1879.

This symphony runs about 40 minutes in performance.  Tchaikovsky's score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

The nickname of this symphony-"Polish"-apparently originated with the conductor August Manns (1825-1907), who spent most of his life in Britain but was actually born into a German family in what is now Poland.  Manns, who led the first London performance of Tchaikovsky's Third in 1899, must have delighted in the polonaise rhythms of the finale.  But the polonaise, although originally a Polish dance, had long become "naturalized" in Russia, where the Czars (who, after all, ruled over a large part of Poland) had adopted it for ceremonial occasions.

Tchaikovsky was not entirely happy with his first two symphonies.  He had twice revised No. 1 ("Winter Reveries"), first written in 1866, and the definitive form, although published in 1875, was not heard for another eight years.  The Second Symphony ("Little Russian"), written in 1873, was awaiting revision, not to be completed until 1879.  With his Third, the composer wanted, above all, to hone his technique and master symphonic form to his own satisfaction.  He said as much in a letter to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: "As far as I can see this symphony presents no particularly successful ideas, but in workmanship it's a step forward."  If Tchaikovsky disparaged the melodies of his work, it was because he had place the emphasis on logical construction, harmonic richness and expert orchestration instead.  He built his symphony mostly (if not exclusively) with brief, malleable motifs that lent themselves well to extensive development and transformation.

The Third is the only Tchaikovsky symphony to have five movements instead of the usual four. Most commentators explain this by the influence of Schumann's Third Symphony (the "Rhenish"), a five-movement work Tchaikovsky loved dearly.  In the outer movements, one does find that rhythmic motion in equal note values that is typical of Schumann's music, but Tchaikovsky's inner movements are very different in character from those of his German predecessor.

Schumann started his Third in medias res ("in the middle of things") with an exuberant opening melody.  Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, has to "earn" that exuberance with an introduction "in the tempo of a funeral march" and a slow transition into the fast tempo.  Once established, the "Allegro brillante" proceeds toward a perfectly executed sonata form, with an expressive oboe melody as second theme, and a closing theme reminiscent of a Russian folk dance.  The development section brings an extremely complex set of key changes as it works through all the themes.  A full recapitulation ensues, followed by a triumphant coda.

The second movement is entitled "Alla tedesca" ("In a German manner"), but its hesitant theme, constantly interrupted by rests, has little Germanic about it.  It is a delicate and harmonically sophisticated waltz, with a trio (middle section) that introduces a fast triplet motion in the woodwind.  When it returns in a new orchestration, the waltz melody retains this faster motion for a while, but then the recapitulation becomes literal.  At the end of the movement, the theme disintegrates and vanishes before our ears.

An "Andante elegiaco" follows as the symphony's slow movement, which seems to continue the valse triste mood of the "Alla tedesca."  Both movements share the ¾ meter and the characteristic triplet figure.  Only this time the melodic writing is more expansive, and a fortissimo climax is reached before the music, once again, fades into silence.

The fourth-movement scherzo is a lively, elfin affair, with rapid sixteenth-note passages traded back and forth between the violins and the woodwind.  Eventually, a solo trombone plays a melodic phrase modelled on folk song.  The theme of the trio section was borrowed from a cantata written in 1872 to commemorate the bicentennial of Czar Peter the Great.  The retransition into the scherzo's main section, with its shimmering string arpeggios, is one of the most memorable passages in the movement.

Finally, the famous Polonaise arrives in the fifth movement.  Tchaikovsky, determined to pull out all the stops, develops the Polish national dance as an erudite fugue, and introduces a second melody that can be brought back, just before the end, as a grandiose hymn, presented in triple forte by the entire orchestra.  Afterwards, all that remains to be heard is a final return of the polonaise melody in its original form, and a brief Presto to end the symphony on a celebratory note.