Symphony No. 2

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 2 in C minor

Op. 17, TH25 • “Little Russian”

About this work

While Tchaikovsky sometimes made use of folk themes, he rarely relied heavily on them. His Symphony No. 2, however, was an exception: he employed folk material in each of the work's four movements, more than in any other orchestral composition. In all, he drew on four melodies, each of Ukrainian origin (the work's nickname, "Little Russian," refers to Ukraine). Dissatisfied with the work despite its great success, Tchaikovsky revised it in 1879 and 1880, extensively reworking the outer movements. The finale, shortened considerably, emerged as one of the brightest moments in his entire output.

The work opens with the horn playing the melody from a Russian folk song called "Down Little Mother Volga," in its melancholy Ukrainian version. The Andante sostenuto tempo changes to Allegro vivo when a second lively theme of absolutely Russian character is presented. A gentle lyrical melody is then introduced by the oboe, and the ensuing development section features much tension and color. It is the opening theme, however, that dominates this movement and gives rise to its essential conflicts and tautness. The second movement is a march whose main theme the composer lifted from his opera, Undine (1869), the score of which he destroyed although a few fragments from it survive. This nonchalant and hardly militant march theme, Andantino marziale, is followed by two other melodies, one the tune to the folk song "Spin, My Spinner." The movement is charming and generally relaxed. The Scherzo that follows, however, is brimming with energy and good cheer, with playfulness and a deft sense for mischief. Its trio features variations on the melody to a song called "Sell, Darling, the Whip, Buy Me Boots Instead."

The finale begins with a grand brass introduction (Moderato assai). The orchestra then builds upon that music and, after several restarts, renders whole its melody, the tune to the folk song "Let the Crane Soar." This Allegro vivo music is most charming and vivacious, and the movement as a whole is colorfully orchestrated. The folk song is brilliantly varied, and a contrasting theme provides quieter interludes. The symphony concludes in unrestrained high spirits. A typical performance of the Symphony No. 2 lasts around 35 minutes.