Program Notes

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, op. 17                Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) 

Instrumentation: Full orchestra

This symphony by Tchaikovsky is a fine demonstration of his career-long habit of experimenting with the musical styles and genres of his day. He finished the original version of the Symphony No. 2 early in his career, in 1872, just after completing his innovative full-length ballet Swan Lake. The once popular nickname “Little Russian” (dropped nowadays for being a relic of Russian 19th-century chauvinism toward Ukraine) draws attention to the melodic source of many of the symphony’s themes in Ukrainian folk music. In fact, the main experiment for this symphony was the composer’s bold attempt to demonstrate that Slavic folk song could generate themes for all four movements of an Austro-Germanic symphonic plan. 

The first movement begins with a masterstroke of such folk song usage. Inspired by similar effects found in the operatic arias of Mikhail Glinka, Tchaikovsky lets an unaccompanied solo horn take on the role of a village folk singer. Gradually and delicately, other instruments join in, as other orchestral “singers” take their turn. With a tempo shift to allegro, more typical symphonic themes appear to create the exposition, development, and recapitulation sections of the typical first movement plan, with the opening folk song reserved for special moments. 

The second movement begins with what was once a wedding march for an unfinished early opera. Its soulful minor-mode folk song theme appears in the middle, introduced by woodwinds and brought to a stunning if brief climax, before the return of the familiar march theme. The third movement connects to the Mendelssohnian tradition of lightning-quick orchestral scherzi, spiced up with sparkling Tchaikovskian riffs in the woodwinds and raucous rhythmic jolts from the brass.  Everything changes in the movement’s center, when a little band of instruments enter to play this movement’s folk tune, to which a delicate countermelody is added. 

The finale opens with a semi-serious nod to the bombastic C-major chords used by Beethoven and his imitators. But instead of preparing a triumphal march, Tchaikovsky unfolds, note by note, the tune of yet another popular Ukrainian folk song. After a pause, the tempo jumps to Allegro vivo and we are met with a long chain of melodic repetitions of the folk tune, coupled with a riot of imaginative accompaniments. This first theme will eventually give way to a second, which has a swaying and more lyrical character. Both themes are then subjected to yet more transformations, including Tchaikovsky’s unique sort of “fascinating rhythms.” The first theme dominates the final minutes of the movement, which proceeds at breakneck speed, interrupted just once by dissonant chords and a gong stroke. The ferocious final pages, quite controversial in their day, are played quite loudly and at double the tempo!

 

Overture to Egmont, op. 84                  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770—1827)       

Instrumentation:  Full (early 19th-century) orchestra

Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a 16th-century Dutch nobleman who sacrificed his life on behalf of Dutch resistance to Spanish rule of their land, during the time of the Inquisition. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749—1832), Germany’s most celebrated poet and dramatist, used this historical figure as the hero for his tragedy Egmont, completed in 1787. Several decades later, Beethoven accepted a commission to write incidental music for a revival of Goethe’s play in Vienna, which gave him the chance to honor a fellow creative artist whom he revered. 

Beethoven’s overture for the play Egmont is a remarkable musical summary of its main plot trajectory: from oppression to resistance, martyrdom of the title character, and the posthumous transformation of Egmont into a symbol of resistance to tyranny. The overture’s slow introduction creates a mood of oppressive gloom. At its core is a conflict between five loud chords in the strings and tender woodwind solos. The seamless transition to allegro launches intense minor-key music with a descending theme in the strings that expresses the struggle instigated by Egmont. The five chords return at the faster tempo to function as a second theme. At the end of the main allegro they return one last time, followed by a violent slashing gesture in the violins. It is Beethoven’s musical expression of the execution of Count Egmont. But his cause is not lost. It takes just a few soft measures of shock and reflection, before his troops rally themselves to avenge him. 

 

Romance No. 2 in F Major for Violin, op. 50      Ludwig van Beethoven (1770—1827)

Instrumentation: Reduced orchestra

Slow, song-like compositions to display the beautiful tone and emotional expressivity of a virtuoso performer have been the standard choice for the middle movements of concerto movements, dating back to the time of Antonio Vivaldi and other Baroque composers. By Beethoven’s time they could also be written as stand-alone works. Beethoven composed his second romance in 1798, eight years before his beloved Violin Concerto in D Major. It follows the plan of a rondo, in which one main theme alternates with episodes that explore other keys, themes, and emotions. The romance’s main theme brings to mind the graceful melodies that Mozart composed for his operatic characters, transformed here to exploit the violin’s greater range and technical capabilities. Each of the episodes brings out a series of new melodic phrases and new emotional nuances. The final appearance of the main theme appears with tasteful ornamentation leading into a brief coda and a delicate final gesture that descends from the gentlest of high C’s.

 

Marche slave, op. 31                    Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Instrumentation: Full orchestra

Unlike the 1812 Overture, which Tchaikovsky composed decades after 1812, as a commemoration of Russia’s victory over Napoleon, the equally popular Marche slave was written in time of war. The conflict that inspired it began when the Bulgars, joined by neighboring Serbia, attempted to liberate themselves from Ottoman rule by attacking the imperial troops in 1876. When the news broke that Russia had joined the conflict, Tchaikovsky resolved to lend his support by composing a rousing orchestral work for a benefit concert. His showpiece of pan-Slavic solidarity brings together actual Serbian folk song, newly composed melodies, and Imperial Russia’s national anthem “God Save the Tsar.” The march tunes emerge at ever-quickening tempi, beginning with a funeral march in B-flat minor. Three more melodies appear, all in major keys. Interspersed with the tunes themselves are anxious connecting passages filled with sharp rhythms and dissonant chords. The piece ends at an Allegro risoluto tempo featuring rapid scales in the strings, woodwinds, and added piccolo, punctuated by accents in full brass and percussion. From the premiere to the present it has never failed to receive a standing ovation.