14 Nov 2013

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 3 in D Major, op. 29 (“Polish”)

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Duration: 45 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – PIOTR ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – 1875 was important for Tchaikovsky as a composer. In addition to being awarded first prize in an operatic competition based on Gogol’s Christmas Eve (the opera has been sadly forgotten), Tchaikovsky began work on Swan Lake and endured his infamous row with Nikolai Rubenstein to have the “vulgar” Piano Concerto No. 1 premiered by Bülow in Boston. Successes, at this time, where hardly assured but they did begin to mount.

THE HISTORY – When simplicity is wanted, Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies can be separated into two groups, those we hear rather often and those we don’t. The popularity of the former set can be attributed (with due respect to their undeniable quality) to the personal turmoil modern audiences read into the music. Tchaikovsky is believed to have been a psychological mess over his sexuality and the 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies rarely escape interpretations that focus on his presumed neuroses. No. 3, written by Tchaikovsky in 1875 just before he started Swan Lake, is the last of the emotionally uncomplicated symphonies. He began composing it while summering at his friend Vladimir Shilovsky’s estate in Usovo and completed it two months later. After the premiere Tchaikovsky told Rimsky-Korsakov that the new symphony contained “no particularly successful ideas” but was a “step forward [in craftsmanship].” That equivocal pair of quotes might convince one to expect very little from Symphony No. 3, but in terms of thematic richness and formal novelty, it deserves better. Cast in an unorthodox five movements instead of four, Symphony No. 3 predicts Tchaikovsky’s orchestral Suites more than his later symphonies and though the music told no programmatic story, it did highlight some of Tchaikovsky’s most brilliant orchestration to date (hence the reluctant “step forward” acknowledgement?). As is so often the case with the nicknames of musical works, the “Polish” moniker needs explanation. It was applied by the conductor of the symphony’s London premiere for no better reason than the “Tempo di polacca” marking of the finale. Time and repetition have allowed the ridiculously misleading name to stick, even while they fail to confirm it as appropriate.                                                                                                  

THE WORLD – Matthew Webb became the first recorded person to swim the English Channel in 1875. Also in 1875, Brigham Young University was founded, the first indoor hockey game was played in Montreal and Carmen premiered in Paris.

THE CONNECTION – Though a rare treat on a Utah Symphony Masterworks concert, Tchaikovsky 3 was performed here in 2000. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted.