Symphony No. 2 in C minor, op. 17

With Tchaikovsky's arrival on the musical scene, Russia had finally produced a composer who had it all:  brilliant technique, outstanding melodic gifts, and a strong Russian national identity.


Previously, “Russianness” had often been pitted against technical perfection in the country's musical life.  The leader of the nationalist school, Mily Balakirev, gathered around him a group of talented young amateurs (Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Cui); they became known as the “Mighty Handful,” or “The Five.”  In the 1860s, these young men looked with a great deal of suspicion at the work done at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, founded in 1862 by the formidable pianist and composer, Anton Rubinstein (born in Russia of German-Jewish extraction and educated in Berlin).  Later the two camps moved closer and even merged to some extent:  Rimsky-Korsakov, who had long outgrown his amateur status, became a professor at the Conservatory.  Despite the obvious merits of the instrumental works of the “Mighty Handful,” it was Tchaikovsky who was destined to bring about the full emancipation of Russian music in the symphonic genre.


Tchaikovsky united in himself the best aspects of both schools.  It is symbolic that, after graduating from Rubinstein's conservatory as a member of its first class in 1866, he produced his first masterpiece, the overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet, under Balakirev's supervision in 1869. 


Tchaikovsky shared with the Balakirev circle his love for folk music.  As a young composer, he used folksongs in several of his early works.  Later, at the age of 32, he set out to write a symphony, based almost entirely on folk tunes.  After Tchaikovsky's death, the symphony received the nickname “Little Russian” (another name for Ukranian) for the several Ukranian melodies found in the composition.


The premiere, which took place in Moscow in 1873, was a great success.  Tchaikovsky was presented with a laurel wreath and a silver goblet.  Yet he remained dissatisfied with the work, and years later, in 1879, he completely revised it. He wrote an entirely new first movement, made major changes in the second and third, though he left the last movement untouched.  In its final form, the work was performed in St. Petersburg in 1881, again with great success.


The years betweeen the original composition and the revision saw the birth of such important works as the First Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and the opera Eugene Onegin.  Tchaikovsky felt that he had come a long way; in one of his letters, he said he had made “a good work out of my immature, mediocre symphony.”


The first movement starts with a plaintive Ukranian melody played by an unaccompanied horn, later taken up and varied by the entire orchestra.  After many exciting and dramatic moments, the horn plays the melody in its original form, accompanied only by the soft plucked notes of the cellos and basses.


The second movement is a march (its melody originally figured as a wedding march in one of Tchaikovsky's early, unsuccessful operas, Undine).  The second melody is another lyrical folksong, called “My Spinning Wheel.”


The third movement is a whirlwind scherzo full of stunning orchestral effects; its Trio, or middle section, is another folk tune, this time a dance, with strong accents that often come when we least expect them.


The finale is based on the Ukranian dance tune known as “The Crane,” presented in turn by many different instrumental combinations.  At the end, it is transformed into a magnificent fanfare played by the entire orchestra, bringing the symphony to a rousing conclusion.