Andante sostenuto—Allegro vivo
Andantino marziale, quasi moderato
Scherzo. Allegro molto vivace
Finale. Moderato assai—Allegro vivo
The most prominent Russian Romantic composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, studied law in St. Petersburg, but was always drawn to music. He worked as a lawyer in the civil service, but soon began to study with Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. After graduating, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow where he began to teach music at the Moscow Conservatory, headed by Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai. However, teaching did not make him happy, he was just eking out his living. From 1876 on, his patroness Nadezhda von Meck provided him with financial support, thanks to which he could devote himself fully to composition and performance of his works. At this time, he created his most famous compositions which brought him recognition in Russia as well as in Europe: the ballets Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty (1889), the operas Eugene Onegin (1878) and The Queen of Spades (1890) and many other orchestral, chamber and vocal pieces. He repeatedly visited Prague (1888, 1892), where he befriended Antonín Dvořák. Tchaikovsky’s swan song is Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”. He died a week after its premiere. The official cause of death was reported to be cholera, but there is much speculation that his death was suicide, allegedly committed in order to preclude the disclosure of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality.
Tchaikovsky’s composition to be heard tonight is somewhat in the shadow of his other symphonies. Conventionally oriented program directors of symphony orchestras often prefer the last three of his symphonies (Nos. 4–6) over his Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian”. This does not mean, however, that this work is not worth the attention of the public. On the contrary, it is good that we have the opportunity to listen to it at the concert tonight!
Tchaikovsky started to work on Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 in October 1879 when he was visiting his sister’s family at their estate at Kamenka (Kamyanka) in what is today the Cherkassy Region of Ukraine. His brother-in-law, Lev Davydov, wanted Tchaikovsky to work undisturbed, and he had previously made available a separate house to him which he equipped with a piano. The composer loved the local environment and regularly came to visit.
The concerto’s first movement is in the traditional sonata form with two contrasting themes (the second musical idea appears after the first solo cadenza), but it has an unusually extensive development. Another special feature can be found in the second movement, Andante non troppo, where piano as the solo instrument is joined by violin and later also by cello. The orchestra, limited just about to the strings, plays only a minimal role in this movement. The brisk final movement has tested the technical competencies of many generations of soloists. Tchaikovsky dedicated this concert to Nikolai Rubinstein, his former superior at the Moscow Conservatory, who died in 1881 before he could give its premiere. The concerto was then performed for the first time in New York on 12 November 1881 by the English pianist Madeleine Schiller with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Little Russian” also came into being in Kamenka. Tchaikovsky composed it in the summer months of 1872. In the 19th century, the Ukrainian territory under the rule of the Russian Empire was called “Little Russia”. Tchaikovsky heard several folk songs in Ukraine which he noted down with interest, and subsequently used them in this symphony in all four movements. The inspiration by East Slavic folklore is obvious in the slow introduction of the first movement presented by horn and later bassoon; the movement continues in sonata form and the first movement ends with a recapitulation of the opening folk theme. The second movement is again framed by one musical idea. It begins in an untraditional way with rhythmic strokes of the tympani. Its whole subsequent course has the form of a festive march (reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s opera Undine). Scherzo (third movement) takes the form of a trio dominated by wind instruments; is it followed by a majestic introduction of the fourth movement. After that, the music considerably accelerates and brings about a number of expressive contrasts. The music gradually increases in intensity, making the listener think that it is a fast-paced coda which would soon close the symphony. However, then comes the exposition of a short lyrical theme and it is clear that the real culmination is yet to come. Indeed, Tchaikovsky ends his symphony in his typical way – by a monumental conclusion in the orchestral tutti.