Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 2 in Cm, op. 17 ‘Little Russian’

performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti, or in a superb recording by the Oslo Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons

(cover image by Serge Kutuzov)

It’s been a while since we’ve seen any Tchaikovsky (a little over a year) and even longer since we’ve seen an orchestral work from him. The last one we did was his first symphony, in the Russian Symphony series about two and half years ago.

If you remember the article (and who am I kidding? Of course you don’t) or are familiar with the piece, we talked about it in the context of Tchaikovsky finding his place among the Russian composers and his tenuous, perhaps dubious relationship with Balakirev’s ‘Mighty Handful’ of Russian composers, staunchly advocating for an uncompromisingly Russian school of composition.

Tchaikovsky wasn’t necessarily opposed to this, but did want to sort of do his own thing, and he did so with his first symphony, which was decidedly not a success, even though he remained fond of it throughout his career. The second symphony, though, is quite different.

Coming in 1872, about six years after the first, the second was an immediate, uncontested, uproarious success, while composer, on the other hand, never felt as confident and pleased with it as he did with his first.

It’s so much more traditionally symphonic and Russian sounding than the first, which may lead us to questions of ‘Did Petey sell out?’ or ‘Is he pandering?’ Wikipedia refers to it as “One of Tchaikovsky’s joyful compositions,” not most joyful, no qualifiers, as if joyful compositions from Tchaikovsky are already rare enough not to need any other clarification.

The work (as recorded by Muti) has a duration of about 32 minutes, and is is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Andante sostenuto—Allegro vivo (C minor)
  2. Andantino marziale, quasi moderato (E-flat major)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro molto vivace (C minor)
  4. Finale. Moderato assai—Allegro vivo (C major)

The first movement immediately lives up to the work’s subtitle. It’s very Russian sounding. I could discuss the quotes and songs that Tchaikovsky references, but I don’t know them. Wikipedia tells us that the first movement quotes a Ukrainian folk song “Down by Mother Volga,” used throughout the movement, perhaps the main reason this work got its ‘Little Russian’ title, as Ukraine was known at the time, apparently, as ‘Little Russia.’

It is a sonata-form movement of sorts, with the E flat major theme taking us right to the development, and skipping from there right to the second theme in the recapitulation, only revisiting the first theme in the coda of the movement. The work is overtly Romantic, a little flamboyant, boisterous, but has a clarity and togetherness that his later, often considered “greater” symphonies rather lack. Tchaikovsky can get long winded in a way different from Mahler or Bruckner; he gets rather emotional and sounds more like whining than actually going somewhere, but this movement, and the whole work, is lean and youthful and strong.

The second movement was originally a bridal march to Tchaikovsky’s unpublished opera Undine, but also quotes other folk songs. It is marked ‘marziale’, and is also succinct and effective. Thankfully, there’s no sob story here, just a tidy bundle of charm. I think you can hear the lyrical, strongly melodic disposition that would fit this snippet comfortably in an opera, with a soprano entering at some point to sing about lost love the joy of partnership or something.

The third movement takes us back to C minor for the scherzo. This is the only movement without any direct quotes to folksong, but Tchaikovsky constructs a movement that sounds legitimately folksy itself. It is very brief, more playful than menacing or tragic, again folk-like and just full of charm. The pizzicato passages seem like foreshadowing of the third movement of the fourth symphony. There is here to a brevity, forward movement and contrast, more propulsive than the second movement, but nothing growling or fierce.

The finale, surprise, brings us to C major, after a grand, triumphant fanfare. More folksong here, but there are also two themes, with a development, recapitulation, and coda.

Could you get more Russian, more triumphant, more national-anthem-esque than this fanfare opening? It introduces another sonata form movement, C major with a contrasting theme in A flat. The coda is thrilling, showy, and wholly satisfying. This compact little work is powerful, and the finale doesn’t underdeliver. It’s boisterous, exciting, just indulgent enough, and Tchaikovsky reaches into his reserves of bang and crunch for a finale that leaves us wanting to go back and take this ride again.

We could talk a little bit about how maybe this wasn’t the symphony that Tchaikovsky would have written had it not been for the pressure from Balakirev’s Mighty Handful of Russian comrades, but regardless of how he felt about it, we see he wrote a gosh darn good symphony. It doesn’t attempt to reach the deepest, darkest corners of the soul, or make the listener question their own existence, but not everything has to. We have here a work that’s compact-ish, forceful, focused and just overall charming, and on occasion, that’s exactly what I want to hear. If Tchaikovsky is a little bit too emotional or dramatic, over-Romantic for your tastes, then I suggest this work may be the perfect balance of his fantastic skill and just enough restraint to be a very satisfying piece of music.

That’s all for Tchaikovsky, for now, but we’ve got a revisit coming up later in the week of another Russian composer, from way back in the very first days of the blog, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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One thought on “Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 2 in Cm, op. 17 ‘Little Russian’

  1. “Little Russia” was and is a denigrating term used by the advocates of a Greater Russia. The logic behind it led the Czar to violently stamp out any sign of revolt in what is known today Ukraine. Russia was riding on a nationalist wave at the time Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony. While he was staying away from politics, a little awareness of the historical context might be helpful for today’s readers.

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