Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony

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What happens when a series of folk songs becomes the seed for an entire symphony? The answer can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a piece which earned the nickname, “The Little Russian” because of its use of three Ukrainian folk melodies. (Since the Middle Ages, the Ukraine has commonly been called “Little Russia.”) This is Tchaikovsky’s most Eastern-looking symphony, the closest he came to the music of the largely self-taught, nationalist “Russian Five” composers, who attempted to develop a uniquely “Russian” musical style.

The first movement begins and ends with “Down by Mother Volga,” played by the solo horn and then the bassoon. To get an idea of the folk song and the distinct sound and style of a Russian choir, listen to this clip. In the opening, notice that Tchaikovsky repeats the melody while changing and developing the music around it. You’ll hear similar variations on an endlessly repeated melodic fragment in the final movement. This is one of the elements which makes this music feel distinctly “Russian.” Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya (1848) is an example of the same kind of folk song development. Tchaikovsky not only uses folk material, he allows it to shape the formal structure of the symphony. The result is music which moves differently than most German symphonic music, at times feeling almost circular or static.

In the middle of the movement, listen to the way the melody is fragmented and tossed around in the development section. Here, contrapuntal voices are coming at us from all directions. Even in his ballet music, Tchaikovsky occasionally plays rhythmic tricks which make it hard to tell where the downbeat lies. Around the 7:00 mark, you’ll hear something similar.

At the end of the movement, the horn voice is suddenly passed to the bassoon. Consider the way the atmosphere changes as we sink into gloom. Was this the way you expected the movement to end?

The second movement is a march which suggests toy soldiers. The second theme (13:31) uses the Ukrainian folk song, “Spin, O My Spinner”. This music was originally written for the unpublished 1869 opera, Undina. Tchaikovsky adapted music from the opera in later works and eventually destroyed the rest of the score. Listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments, starting with the distant sounds of the clarinet and bassoon. Each time the melody returns, a different layer is added (the pizzicato at 13:14 and then the swirling string lines and sparkling flutes at 15:56) until the music fades into the distance, ending as it began.

Hans Keller draws an interesting parallel between this movement and the march in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

It seems significant that whereas the First [Symphony] quotes from the past, the Second quotes, as it were, from the future: the basic thought of the second movement, Andantino marziale, quasi moderato, was to grow, more than 20 years later, into the (not so called) march of the Sixth Symphony’s third movement.

As Mozart’s instrumental music often feels like imaginary, wordless operas, ballet is never far away in the music of Tchaikovsky. The exuberant grace, elegance and lightness of the third movement feels like ballet music waiting for choreography.

The opening of the final movement gives us the feeling of music composing itself. We start with three notes and a simple I-V-I chord progression…then add another note…and suddenly the motive takes shape. It’s similar to what Beethoven does in the opening of the First Symphony’s final movement. In this case, the melody is related to a folk song called, “The Crane.” As the final movement unfolds, listen to the colorful, constantly changing variations which take place around this melody. The music seems to celebrate and pay homage to this simple Ukrainian folk melody. One of my favorite moments comes at 28:20, where the harmony descends around the circle of fifths. As the melodic line rises, it’s met with the low brass descending. The passage reminds me of this similarly exhilarating moment of contrary motion in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky is a composer who pushes us to the limit and then, miraculously, takes us even farther. That’s what happens in the final movement’s development section. Just before the development begins, at what should be the moment of highest climax, the music suddenly seems to spin out of control with a series of “wrong” pitches in seemingly random registers and octaves (28:48). Listen to the way these bell-tone-like pitches are picked up in the low brass, becoming the foundation of a development section which combines the movement’s first and second themes.

Tchaikovsky finished the “Little Russian” Symphony in 1872 and revised it several times over the following ten years. You can get a sense of the original version here.

This recording from 1990 features Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:

  1. Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo (0:00)
  2. Andante marziale (11:35)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro molto vivace (18:53)
  4. Finale. Moderato assai (24:21)

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.

Five Musical Sunrises

images-35Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events?

Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography]

Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.76, No.4 was not originally intended to evoke a sunrise. For Haydn this quartet, written in 1797 in the final years of his life, was pure music. The ascending opening passage later earned it the nickname, “Sunrise”. This expansive musical line has been called “one of the greatest openings in chamber music.” Listen to the way Haydn draws us into the piece and heightens our expectation. The second theme (1:09) reverses the opening motive with a descending line in the cello. In the development section, beginning at 4:24, notice how Haydn transforms the opening motive, suddenly shifting into minor. Can you hear when Haydn returns “home” at the recapitulation?

The last movement’s “Allegro ma non troppo” marking implies a tempo which isn’t too fast. But Haydn, the master of musical humor and surprise, does something interesting and unexpected with the tempo at the end.

This performance is by the Takács Quartet:

  1. Allegro con spirito (0:00)
  2. Adagio (8:15)
  3. Menuetto. Allegro (14:17)
  4. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo (18:29)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude to Khovanshchina[/typography]

Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanshchina, tells the story of a violent and bloody episode in Russian history-the unsuccessful rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky against Peter the Great and the subsequent mass suicide of Khovansky’s followers. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of “The Russian Five,” a group of nationalistic Russian composers who aimed to promote their country’s unique musical identity.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina depicts dawn on the Moscow River. The music was orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay attention to the mix of orchestral colors and to the way the piece unfolds. How do these elements suggest a sunrise over calm, glistening water? Listen for the sound of church bells. Also, notice the quick ornamental notes in the melody (1:06), which give the music its distinctly Russian flavor.

Here is a 1997 recording of the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Solti:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Nielsen’s Helios Overture[/typography]

Helios was the living sun in Greek mythology. In his Helios Overture, Op. 17, Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) depicts sunrise as a gradual, unfolding process. The moment when night gives way to the first light of dawn is marked by a sliver of light on the edge of the eastern horizon. At the end of the day, the sun sinks back into the western horizon.

In the score Nielsen wrote:

[quote]Silence and darkness, The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, It wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.[/quote]

This is the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Morning Mood from Peer Gynt[/typography]

Now let’s hear the famous first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite, which also depicts a sunrise. This performance is by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The flute solo is played by James Galaway, who was principal flute in Berlin at the time of the recording. Listen to the dialogue between instruments. Each voice from the woodwinds to the horns has a distinct persona.

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As a professional orchestral musician, I consider myself lucky to be able to sit in the middle of the orchestra every day, surrounded by a rich collective sound. When I play this piece, I always listen for the magical moment at the end of this movement when the horn chords resolve into the final statement of the flute (3:20). The warm low strings and the shimmering flute create a unique musical mood.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Grand Canyon Suite[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to a distinctly American musical depiction of a sunrise. The scene is Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. This is the first movement of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Here is some background on the piece, completed in 1931. This is a recording featuring the Detroit Symphony, led by conductor Antal Doráti:

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