Marche Slav, op. 31

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            The story is depressingly familiar:  In 1876 the Christians and the Muslims were slaughtering each other in a war between the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and the Slavs of Serbia.  Plus ça change.  Naturally, Russia supported its fellow Slavs, and in the general patriotic fervor, Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the director of the Russian Musical Society to contribute a composition to a benefit concert for the Red Cross Society.  By October of that year, his “Serbo-Russian” march was complete.  Tchaikovsky’s own hand on the manuscript refers to the composition’s basis on “Slavonic folk themes.”

            The work is a dynamic and colorful thumper of a march, quoting not only Serbian folk tunes, but incorporating the Russian national anthem, as well, in the peroration.  While couched in a traditional form that provides satisfying balance and symmetries, the work nevertheless is somewhat programmatic, depicting the story of Turkish atrocities against the Serbs, vigorous battles, and the inevitable triumph of the good (the Slavs) in sequential fashion.  The tragic opening is based upon two Serbian folk songs of contrasting natures, leading to a tumultuous section that depicts the suffering of the Serbs at the hands of the Turks.  We next sense optimism as the Russians muster themselves to come to the aid of their compatriots.  The Serbs suffer a bit more, and then the Russians are heard marching to the fray.  An ear-splitting rendition of the Russian national anthem—God Save the Tsar—brings us to the exultant conclusion.  It’s all reminiscent of the composer’s 1812 Overture, marvelously diverting, and Tchaikovsky at his populist best.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan