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Symphony No. 2, Little Russian

Rimsky-Korsakov and his crowd admired Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 for its extensive use of Ukrainian and Russian folk tunes as basic thematic material.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born May 7, 1840, at Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, Russia; died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893
  • Year completed: 1872
  • First performance: January 26, 1873, Russian Musical Society (Moscow branch), Nicholas Rubinstein conducting
  • First BSO performance: February 12, 1897, Emil Paur conducting

The score of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

First, about the unfortunate nickname of this charming, joyful symphony—“Little Russian” (“Malorossiskaya”). It was not Tchaikovsky but the influential music critic Nikolai Kashkin (1839-1920) who bestowed this descriptive title on what is one of the composer’s most cheerful and extroverted compositions. Kashkin suggested the moniker in his 1896 book Memories of Tchaikovsky because the Symphony No. 2 draws heavily on Ukrainian folk tunes, and the label stuck. The Russian adjective he used—“Malorossiskaya”—does indeed translate literally into English as “Little Russian,” but really means “Ukrainian.”

For Ukrainians, the term “Malaya Rossiya” (“Little Russia”) was a source of shame and embarrassment. This was especially true in the late 19th century, when the Russian government, afraid of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, enacted severe anti-Ukrainian language policies. Use of the terms “Ukraine” (“Ukraina”) and “Ukrainian” was actually banned between 1863 and 1905. Because it was associated with Tsarist oppression and Great Russian chauvinism, the phrase “Malaya Rossiya” virtually disappeared (except in historical texts) during the Soviet era. And since the creation of an independent Ukraine in 1991, the term has become so pejorative that you’d likely get a black eye if you used it on the streets of Kiev. Whether Tchaikovsky would have approved of Kashkin’s label we will never know, since the composer died three years before it was first suggested.

We do know that Tchaikovsky was in fact very fond of Ukraine, and spent a good deal of time there. After her marriage, his beloved sister Alexandra (Sasha) lived in Ukraine at her husband’s estate near Kamenka, not far from Kiev, and Tchaikovsky frequently spent summers there, often with other members of his family present. Kamenka became a kind of second home and refuge for the chronically wandering composer. It was also there, in the lush Ukrainian countryside, that he began work on a new symphony during a month-long stay in early summer 1872.

The work continued after Tchaikovsky returned to Moscow in the autumn and took up residence in a new apartment with two servants and a dog he had found on a Moscow street. In November he wrote to his brother Modest that “the symphony which I am just finishing has so occupied me that I am in no state to undertake anything else. I think this is my best work with respect to perfection of form, a quality in which I have not shone before now.” In December, while visiting St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky performed the new symphony on the piano at the home of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the most important members of the so-called “Mighty Handful” group of Russian nationalist composers and a professor at St. Petersburg Conservatory. The reaction of those present was overwhelmingly positive: “The whole company nearly tore me to pieces in rapture, and Mme. Korsakov, with tears in her eyes, asked if she might arrange it for piano duet.” The first public performance of the Symphony No. 2, on January 26, 1873, was an unqualified success, and others soon followed.

So pleased was Tchaikovsky with the warm reception that he wrote to his brother and confidant Modest, not entirely in jest, that “in general, the time is drawing near when Kolya, Tolya, Ippolit, and Modya will no longer be the Tchaikovskys, but merely the brother of the Tchaikovsky. I shall make no secret of the fact that this is the desired end of all my efforts. To grind into the dust everything around one by one’s own greatness—is not this supreme pleasure?! So tremble, for soon my fame will crush you.”

But the chronically insecure Tchaikovsky would never be pleased with himself or his work for very long. He had expressed dissatisfaction with the first three movements in a letter to the critic Vladimir Stasov the day after the very first performance; so when the publisher Bessel failed to publish the score of the 1872 version as promised, Tchaikovsky decided in 1879 to undertake a major revision of the Symphony No. 2. Most of the work was done quickly in Rome in December 1879. Writing to Bessel in early January 1880, Tchaikovsky reported on the changes he had made:

1. I have composed the first movement afresh, leaving only the introduction and coda in their previous form. 2. I have rescored the second movement. 3. I’ve altered the third movement, shortening and rescoring it. 4. I’ve shortened the finale and rescored it.

Composer Sergei Taneyev (and Kashkin) disliked the changes Tchaikovsky had made, finding the original version far superior. Not everyone was so discerning, however: when the new version was performed in Russia in 1881, none of the critics apparently noticed the revisions.

Rimsky-Korsakov and his crowd admired Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 for its extensive use of Ukrainian and Russian folk tunes as basic thematic material, since they believed that the new Russian national music should exploit the empire’s rich tradition of folk song and folk dance. The first movement opens with a lengthy introduction based on the Ukrainian version of a well-known Russian folk song, “Down along the Volga” (“Vniz po matushke po Volge”), which then reappears briefly in the development section. In the following Andantino marziale, Tchaikovsky includes a short quotation from the Russian folk song “Spin, oh my spinner,” contrasted with the wedding march from his early unproduced opera Undine. Only the third-movement scherzo lacks authentic folk material, although the central Trio section strives for a “folk-like” sound.

The brilliant fourth-movement finale especially dazzled the “Mighty Handful” group, with its twenty-four toe-tapping variations on the Ukrainian folk song “The Crane” (“Zhuravel”), constructed with the same “changing background” technique used by Mikhail Glinka in his treatment of a folk tune in his orchestral tone poem Kamarinskaya. What is unusual here is the use of a folk tune not just as ornament or introduction, but as the main subject of a sonata-form finale movement. While admitting that the Symphony No. 2 “does not probe the psychological depths in the manner of his later symphonies,” musicologist Edward Garden observes that it does succeed in penetrating to the essence of Russian folk song perhaps even more successfully than the symphonies of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cineaste, and Opera News, and he has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.