Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, op. 17 (“Little Russian”)

            Tchaikovsky composed six symphonies, all of which are played today, but the last three are decidedly the most popular.  However, there is much value and enjoyment in the first three, all of which deserve to be heard more frequently.  Tchaikovsky’s second symphony was composed during the summer of 1872, while the composer was vacationing in the Ukraine at his sister’s country home.  While in the Ukraine the composer travelled around the country, and evidently encountered the region’s folksongs.   That being the case, it is no surprise that many of the important tunes and themes in his latest symphony should be based upon native Ukrainian melodies.  In point of fact that is the exact rationale for one of Tchaikovsky’s friends later dubbing the work, “Little Russian.”    While the symphony is not a long one, it is neither “little,” nor--the nickname notwithstanding--is it “Russian.”  For centuries Russians often referred to the Ukraine as Little Russia; it has long rankled the Ukrainians, and current events certainly bear out that animosity today.  So, even if it probably more clearly could be called Tchaikovsky’s “Ukrainian” symphony, “Little Russian” it is.  

            By roughly the middle of the nineteenth century, Russian composers were seeking a distinctive niche for themselves, one that reflected their own time and place.  Yet, there was an equal commitment to incorporating much of the styles and forms of great European music.  Tchaikovsky, obviously found himself in the middle of the debate, and one can trace elements of both approaches in all of his music—but with a distinct slant to the latter.  His second symphony, with its usage of folksong, is clearly the high water mark of his employment of the approaches of the nationalistic, folksong group—often called the “Russian Five” [incorrectly], or the “Mighty Handful.”  It was given its première in January of 1873 in Moscow, and unlike the piano concerto from two years later, met with a “mighty” approval and rave enthusiasm—especially from that group.   Accolades came, as well, from the villain of the initial piano concerto reception, our friend, Nikolai Rubenstein, who conducted the first performance of the symphony.

            There are a few, but charming, eccentricities in the symphony, starting right at the beginning.  The slow introduction starts with a horn solo, which lays out the melancholy first theme, a Ukrainian folksong.   It is taken up by various parts of the orchestra, as the introduction gradually gains in intensity and implied motion.   Snatches of it will be heard again in the middle of the movement, and more completely at the end.   After a brief segue in the trombones, followed by the horns, the second theme may be heard first in the clarinets—this is the material that will dominate the movement, and is the chief reason some pundits like to compare it with the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5:  both are in c minor, and there is some similarity between the rhythm and outline of the two composer’s respective themes.  You’ll hear Tchaikovsky’s “second theme” everywhere in this movement.  A bit later, there is a third theme, in the woodwinds, that is decidedly lyrical and less threatening—characterized by a pleasant little movement upwards, but Tchaikovsky uses it sparingly and when in need of contrast.  At the end of the movement we again hear the solo horn playing as at the beginning, and the whole affair—notwithstanding the overall intensity of the movement--ends softly.

            The second movement is a short one, and is not the usual slow one, rather it is a quirky little processional march that was more or less “left over” from an early, aborted opera of Tchaikovsky’s.  Lightly scored, the march returns periodically after some diversions into other material, including, yes, another Ukrainian folksong.  A last return of the march heralds the end, and gossamer-like, gently fades out of sight and sound.  The third movement, a scherzo, partakes of much of the same “Midsummer Night’s Dream” atmosphere—but is suitably vigorous.  The obligatory contrasting mood in the middle, introduced by a “village band” in the woodwind section, changes the usual rhythm from three to two to a bar.  A return to the opening scherzo scampers along to a conclusion that would make Berlioz proud.

            The last movement starts off with a grandiose tune in the whole ensemble that many have compared with a little “Great Gate of Kiev.”  It’s is a well-known Ukrainian folksong, “The Crane,” which legend has it was first sung to the composer by a servant in the house in which he was staying.  The strings take up the tune, and this “first theme” is worked through a long series of variations that bear the inimitable hallmark of the composer’s mastery of orchestration.   It’s easy to follow this vigorous dance tune as he puts both it and the orchestra through their paces. Tchaikovsky is a master of what seems to be an infinity of color combinations and rhythmic ideas.  After what surely is the end, the composer finally introduces the contrasting idea--one of his own devising—heard first in the strings.  It’s a graceful, nostalgic little salon tune that provides a useful foil to the ruckus of the main idea.  Tchaikovsky goes on to develop them together in the ensuing section, but it’s really the boisterous “The Crane” that dominates all, here.  It doesn’t take long for one to sense the inevitable Tchaikovskian steamroller to the end.  It teases and builds slowly, but you know that it’s coming, as woodwinds, strings, and brass—all with their own ideas—interact in a cascade of sound.  “The Crane” and the little salon tune each get their due, but after a grand pause proceeded by stentorian low brass and a tam tam crash, the breathtaking dash to the end ensues.  The excitement is an absolute peer to all the finales that we love so much from the more familiar symphonies, and makes us all the more glad that we now know this one, as well.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan