Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a prolific Russian composer of symphonies, operas, ballets, and a variety of other music.
At the time, many contemporary Russian composers thought he represented the West’s influence on Russian culture. For those outside of Russia, Tchaikovsky represented the best the country had to offer, a sensitive musical genius.
His modern legacy is intertwined with symbolism and interpretation; being a gay composer in the 1800’s, his opus is often examined under the lens of cultural repression.
Many listeners know his ballet works, such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the ever-popular Nutcracker. His symphonies often move through ballet idioms, conveying dancing forms even from the concert stage.
Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13 – “Winter Daydreams”
Written after assuming a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky’s first symphony was a difficult process for the composer, taking nearly three years to complete.
1. Dreams of a Winter Journey: Allegro tranquillo
The first movement uses a traditional sonata form, incorporating a variety of sounds reminiscent of galloping horses and sweeping landscapes.
2. Land of Desolation, Land of Mists: Adagio cantabile, ma non tanto
This movement builds variations around a single theme, nearly impressionist in its delicate, slowly transforming style.
3. Scherzo: Allegro Scherzando giocoso
Adapted from one of the composer’s piano sonatas, the Scherzo is a mysteriously playful work that challenges the idea of the traditionally fast and aggressive Scherzo.
4. Finale: Andante Lugubre, Allegro Maestoso
The fourth and final movement features a slow introduction and a fast and bombastic main section, both inspired by the folk song Raspashu li ya mlada, mladeshenka, or “I’m Planting some Flowers, Little One.”
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 – “The Little Russian”
A popular hit from its debut in 1873, Tchaikovsky’s second symphony incorporates a variety of folk influences, earning respect from both western crowds and Russian nationalist composers.
1. Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
The first movement begins with a quotation from the Ukrainian/Russian folk song, “Down the Mother Volga,” before transitioning to another folk melody that some listeners may recognize from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture.
The rest of the movement slowly develops into a raucous storm before winding down into the opening folk material.
2. Andantino marziale, quasi moderato
Originally formulated as a bridal march for an unfinished opera, this movement sounds similar to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, majestically lilting throughout the scene.
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace
The only movement without a folk music quotation, the scherzo is a rapid, whirling folk dance adhering to a typical da capo minuet form.
4. Finale: Moderato assai – Allegro vivo
The fourth movement is a dramatic theme and variations based off of the folk song “The Crane,” with almost Beethovenian dramatic material.
Symphony No. 3 in D Major Op. 29 – “The Polish Symphony”
First performed in 1875 in Russia, the work had rapid international success starting with the New York Philharmonic’s performance in 1879.
The symphony was given the title, “The Polish Symphony” by English conductor Sir August Manns in 1899, though the title is now considered incorrect.
1. Introduzione e Allegro: Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) – Allegro brilliante
Tchaikovsky begins his third symphony with a somber funeral march, building faster and louder into a typical sonata-allegro form.
2. Alla tedesca: Allegro moderato e semplice
Unusual for Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the 3rd symphony contains five movements, the slow inner movement preceded by a relaxed dance which waltzes along with winds dancing above pizzicato strings.
3. Andante elegiaco
The third movement is a slow exploration through romantic textures.
4. Scherzo: Allegro vivo
Unusually written in 2/4, the Scherzo is a fleeting and dazzling work centering on calls and responses from across the orchestra.
5. Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di Polacca)
Built around a polka style, the Fifth movement contributed to the symphony’s misguided title “The Polish Symphony.”
In fact, the Polka was a traditional dance throughout European royal courts, most particularly dances held by the Russian nobility.
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Like most composers, Tchaikovsky was heavily influenced by Beethoven, the fourth symphony being his response to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first movement being a declaration of “Fate.”
1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima – Moderato assai, quasi Andante – Allegro vivo
As mentioned above, the first movement centers on a “Fate” motif, accentuated by cataclysmic lightning strikes before mellowing into a waltz to begin the movement’s sonata form.
This emotionally dense movement is nearly as long as the remaining three movements.
2. Andantino in modo di canzona
A tranquil and grief-stricken second movement follows the introspective and mortally aware first movement.
3. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato- Allegro
This movement begins with pizzicato across the string sections, bubbling and flowing like surging water. The winds and brass join in on the fun before the movement resolves back into the pizzicato material.
4. Finale: Allegro con fuoco
Built upon “A Birch Tree Stands in the Field,” a Russian folk song, the fourth movement is an exhilarating journey that tests the limits of orchestral drama.
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1888, Tchaikovsky believed that the work was a failure and moved quickly to his future musical projects.
In spite of his artistic pessimism, the Fifth symphony has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works, and, following its performance during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941, became a symbol of perseverance against insurmountable odds.
1. Andante – Allegro con anima – Molto più tranquillo
The opening movement follows a typical sonata form and introduces the “Motto” theme, which returns throughout the other three movements.
2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza – Non allegro – Andante maestoso con piano
The second movement is a somber and careful movement which explores one of the most iconic melodies in symphonic music.
3. Valse: Allegro moderato
A flipped Scherzo-trio form, the third movement begins with a series of waltzes, featuring a scherzo as its middle section.
4. Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace – Molto vivace – Moderato assai e molto maestoso – Presto
The fourth movement once again begins with the “Motto” theme, and is considered by many, including the composer, to be a ramshackle and crude ending to the work.
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 – “Pathétique”
The last work published by Tchaikovsky during his lifetime, his sixth symphony is considered by many to be a suicide note, the debut performance happening only nine days before the composer’s death.
1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
Beginning in the depths of musical emotion, this movement transcends to a place of optimism before descending back into nightmares.
2. Allegro con grazia
The second movement is a sweet, lopsided waltz in 5/4.
3. Allegro molto vivace
This dazzling scherzo is in a compound meter, pitting 12/8 against 4/4 throughout the movement.
Finale: 4. Adagio lamentoso
This final movement is so emotionally draining that Soviet performances ended with the third movement to protect the audience from its gravity.
The very end of the finale is marked “dying out,” possibly hinting at the composer’s impending demise.
Hello Music Theory’s Picks
Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra
The RNO’s performance with Pletnev at the helm is a sensitive and honest portrayal of the six symphonies, performed by an orchestra dedicated to the performance of Russian music.
Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic
Zubin Mehta’s collection of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies are clean, well-constructed, and provide a great example of modern symphonic recording.
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
A taste of the old symphonic style, Karajan’s recordings adorn the Berlin Philharmonic’s iconic sound with dramatic peaks and depths that push the orchestra’s limits.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky transformed the world of romantic music through his ballets, operas, absolute music, and symphonies.
His heavily symbolic and folk-enriched symphonies provide an incredibly entertaining listening experience, transporting the listener to the countrysides, palaces, bustling cities, and fairy tales of Tsarist Russia.
We hope you listen through and enjoy these symphonies, and feel moved by Tchaikovsky’s incredible depth, sensitivity, and imagination.