Symphony no. 3 in D major, op. 29

I. Introduzione e Allegro
II. Alla tedesca – Allegro moderato e semplice
III. Andante elegiaco
IV. Scherzo – Allegro vivo
V. Finale – Allegro con fuoco (tempo di Polacca)


Of Tchaikovsky's six symphonies, the Third is in many ways the odd one out. It is the only symphony cast in a major key, the only one that expands the classical four movement scheme and the only one that the composer completed in a few weeks and never subsequently revised. Finally, it was the only of his symphonies that sank immediately into oblivion following its premiere.


And yet, days after its premiere in February 1876 in Saint Petersburg conducted by Eduard Nepravnik, Tchaikovsky reported to this brother: “The symphony went very well and was a significant success… I was called onto the platform and very enthusiastically applauded.”  Most of the critics were also positive. Among them, the critic of Golos, Laroche, who produced a veritable paean of praise: “Tchaikovsky progresses from peak to peak” he enthused, “In the new symphony the art of form and the contrapuntal development was at a more elevated level than in any of his earlier works … The importance and power of the music, the nobility of its style, the originality and exceptional perfection of its orchestration contribute to making this one of the more remarkable musical creations of the last ten years, not just in Russia but the whole of Europe.” Laroche reserved his only negative observation for the final movement, according to him, “it suffers to some degree from a certain dryness which because of the sparkling technique is not so conspicuous.”


It was this objection that seems to have gnawed at Tchaikovsky's mood as we can detect in another letter to his brother from a few weeks later: “The press, particularly Laroche, wrote very stiffly about my symphony. They all agreed that it contains nothing new and that I am beginning to repeat myself. Is this true?” But as we can see, Laroche's article was in no sense negative. But it is also true that others made similar points. For example Cesar Cuj, who was generally hostile to Tchaikovsky: “The public received the symphony relatively coldly and applauded with reservation, but after its final notes, they greeted the composer with a storm of celebration. Well, we certainly have to take this symphony seriously. The first three movements are the best, but the last – although the magic of its sonority can also be acknowledged – is deficient in musical content. Overall, the symphony tells us of the composer's talent but we are justified in expecting better from Tchaikovsky.”


Tchaikovsky began work on the symphony in June 1875 while staying on his pupil Vladimir Silvosky's estate at Ussovo (he is also the dedicatee) and was completed by early August. This was the time when Tchaikovsky wrote two of his most enduringly popular works, the Piano Concerto in B flat minor and Swan Lake. The Symphony no. 3 also contains suite-like elements: its unusual five movement form perhaps links it to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Schumann's “Rhein” Symphony. Also two movement have a dance character.


The symphony is sometimes known by its nickname “Polish.” This derives not from the composer's lips but was an idea of Sir August Manns, the conductor of its London premiere and refers to the polonaise rhythm of the finale. This Polish dance, as the tempo and character instructions indicate (tempo di Polacca) determines the character of the closing movement, but can be detected no where else. Using this logic, Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 3 might just as well have been called the “German” symphony because the second movement waltz is marked “alla tedesca”.


The slow introductory episode of the opening movement evokes the character of a funeral march and the use of a dominant A as a pedal point across 89 bars paves the way for a sparkling upbeat movement in traditional sonata form. The German waltz like second movement is in B flat major and this is followed by an expansive slow movement. The following scherzo recycles in its trio material Tchaikovsky used in an earlier cantata. The Finale, which Cuj judged as being “deficient in musical content” is a grand, festive, brilliantly orchestrated polonaise within a rondo form.

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