Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

Op. 17 ("Little Russian"), Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky was visiting his sister in Kamianka in Ukraine (known as Little Russia during the tsarist period) in the summer of 1872 when he began work on his Second Symphony.  Influenced by Glinka’s use of folksongs in Kamarinskaya, which he considered to be fundamental to Russian symphonic music, and folksongs he heard in that region, he inserted three into movements one, two, and four of Opus 17. In order, these are “Down the Mother Volga” “Spin o My Spinner”, and “The Crane.”

Noting this, the sobriquet “Little Russian” was coined by his friend and music critic Nikolay Kashkin. Never again would he quote folksongs as extensively as he did in this work. Although the premier was a success on February 7, 1873, Tchaikovsky decided to revise the symphony in 1879, noting that “I am not completely satisfied with the first three movements….[I intend] to turn this immature and mediocre symphony into a good one.”  The new version appeared in 1881, and like the first, was acclaimed.

The first movement opens with “Down the Mother Volga” sung by solo horn and echoed by bassoon. The poet Sergey Ysenin noted that this music embraces the joy and despair of the Russian character. In part, the lyrics read:

Down the Volga, Mother Volga

Over the wide sheet of water,

There arises a thunderstorm, a huge


Nothing is to be seen on the waves

There is only a small black ship…

The enormous river Volga, coursing 2,294 miles, has had deep symbolic meaning in Russian history.  It has provided fertile soil in its extensive valleys, a navigable means of transportation throughout hundreds of years, sometimes described in Russian folklore as “mother, mistress, comrade, and beloved companion.” “Volga, Volga, you are our pride” is noted in the famous Volga boatman song.

The reverential folksong moves slowly and gently in the introduction. At first, Tchaikovsky keeps the formal integrity of the theme, repeating it with ever increasing complexity of accompaniment and instrumental expansion .When the Allegro section emerges, he utilizes Western techniques of symphonic development by fragmenting the idea into its smaller components which are shared by different parts of the orchestra, particularly the oboe, clarinets and bassoon before being advanced to the strings. At the close, the entire folksong, now reassembled, is stated in the solo horn and bassoon for a reflective, quiet conclusion.

Tchaikovsky’s second movement features two contrasting ideas derived from a bridal march written for his 1869 opera Undina (which never materialized.) Although the composer used different themes from that score, he eventually destroyed the music. “Spin o My Spinner” emerges in an embedded rondo before the march returns at the close.

The third movement gains energy and agitation, only momentarily stopped by a small trio. The music sounds folk-like, but there is no exact quotation.

The powerful last movement features the folksong “The Crane” (Zhuravel), sung frequently by Tchaikovsky’s butler in the Ukraine. The second title for this folksong was “Let the Crane soar.” A brief fanfare opens the scene before “the Crane” is displayed and developed by variations.  The folktune shares the spotlight with a secondary lyrical string melody, especially in the development section, before a splendid dramatic conclusion. This movement was significantly shortened (by 150 bars) in the 1879 revision, a cut which had featured more extensive development and grandeur for the (soaring) Crane. At first, Tchaikovsky called the entire symphony “the Crane” but later erased the idea. Because of its nationalistic colorations, he dedicated Opus 17 to the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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