1840 — 1893
SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MINOR, OP. 17 1872 and 1880
Symphony No. 2, Little Russian, stands among Tchaikovsky’s six other symphonies as an example of the Russian composer’s periodic venture into a nationalistic style of music. This symphony’s folk melodies originated from the area known as the Ukraine or “Little Russia.”
The “Russian Five” (composers Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin) were ecstatic by the finished symphony. These composers, all preaching nationalistic music, felt that they had finally convinced the composer to focus his music around situations involving a Russian identity. But within seven years the dissatisfied Tchaikovsky tore up the original manuscript and replaced symphonic parts with a revision more Germanic in style. This revision is the one that is usually featured in today’s symphonic repertoire.
First Movement: Like almost every major work of Tchaikovsky’s, this begins with a slow introduction. A single horn sounds a melancholy Ukrainian song titled Down by Mother Volgathat sets the movement’s mood. Its downward swings and ways of traversing and re-traversing the same figures give the movement an unmistakably Russian flavor.
Second Movement: In this movement Tchaikovsky chose to eliminate the slow symphonic form, traditional in most second movements, and instead has written a march sounded by two “see-saw” timpani notes. The theme relies on a wedding march salvaged from the composer’s unfinished opera Undine. A charming rondo comes from the Russian song Spin, oh my Spinner before returning to the march.
Third Movement: This is an agitated scherzo with a rhythmic drive interrupted only by a whimsical trio emphasizing the woodwinds and reminiscent of a theme similar to one by Russian composer Borodin.
Fourth Movement: This proceeds after a brief fanfare with Tchaikovsky including the folk song Let the Crane Soar, a melody with a quirky meter suggestive of a clumsy waltz or rumba in staccato style. During his lifetime he gave credit to the Ukrainian butler-in-residence for having often sung this song while Tchaikovsky worked on the symphony in a nearby area.