A history and analysis of Tchaikovsky's 3rd Symphony in D major, nicknamed the "Polish" posthumously in 1899. Composed at the height of his career in 1875, the third symphony is one of the most unique in form of orchestral repertoire. Insight on available recordings and public-view performances are provided here for reference only.
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 ("Polish")
PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad)
The first page of the full score:
Tchaikovsky began work on his Third Symphony on June 5, 1875. While on visits to friends and relatives that summer, he worked relentlessly on the score, completing the work on the first of August. The Symphony was given its first performance that year on November 19th, at the first concert of the Russian Music Society's season. The performance was conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein. Two elements set this symphony apart from the other five that Tchaikovsky wrote: it is the only one that he wrote in a major key, and it contains five movements instead of the usual four.
The symphony commences with an introduction in D minor marked Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre). The introductory theme is first played by the strings, then taken up by the horns and further elaborated by the woodwinds. After a short transitional theme played by the woodwinds, the music gradually accelerates to a forte statement by the strings, woodwinds and horns of the main theme of the movement, now finally in the major key. After a brief subordinate theme is exchanged from one family of instruments to another, the main theme is restated, this time by the entire orchestra. A graceful dance melody on the oboe, marked molto espressivo is subsequently taken up by flute, clarinet and bassoon, providing the secondary theme of the movement. The third theme makes its appearance, consisting of a spirited folkdance-like melody in the clarinet over a pedal point provided by the bassoon playing a staccato octave figure. An extensive development section follows; it is characterized by several fugato sections, sonorous orchestration, and a luxuriant harmonic scheme bearing the influence of Robert Schumann. The short coda that concludes this movement incorporates all the thematic material previously espoused.
Tchaikovsky incorporated an additional Scherzo movement. It is marked Alla tedesca ("In the German style") and the tempo indication is Allegro moderato e semplice. Over a background of pizzicato strings the waltz theme is presented by solo flute and clarinet with a countermelody in the bassoon. The Trio section features a chromatic triplet figure which is alternated between woodwinds and strings. This figure is still being played when the main waltz theme makes its return. Over a B-flat pedal point, the proceedings gradually die down until a solo bassoon is left to play the waltz theme one last time over quiet, sparce string pizzicatos. An abbreviated version of this movement was later used as an entr'acte in the composer's own incidental music to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Tenderness and nostalgia can be discerned in the slow movement (Andante elegiaco). It is an intimate and expansive movement. An introductory melody in the flutes is heard before the main theme is heard, played, first by a solo bassoon and then by a solo horn, over soft string pizzicatos. A cantilena melody, marked molto espressivo, provides the second theme and is played by the strings. A calling figure derived from the main theme is involved in the development along with the other themes. The movement ends quietly with one last statement of the main theme on solo bassoon and horn.
The fourth movement is another Scherzo (Allegro vivo), this one exhibiting a marked influence from Mendelssohn and recalling that composer's fairies' music inA Midsummer Night's Dream. This movement is a tour de force of subtle orchestration. In the main section of the movement the themes are fragmentary and are speedily traded from one group of instruments to another. Employing material from Tchaikovsky's own cantata of 1872 commemorating the birth of Peter the Great, the Trio section is most ingenious, consisting of a horn pedal point on D, over which the theme is heard in seven different keys. The movement concludes with the return of the elfin like music that began the proceedings.
The Finale is marked Allegro con fuoco and bears the further marking of Tempo di polaca. Based on this, the British conductor Sir August Friedrich Manns felt justified in giving the work its "Polish" nickname in 1899 after conducting the work at the Crystal Palace concerts. Although Tchaikovsky never sanctioned this practice, having died six years earlier, the nickname has been in usage ever since. It should be noted that the designation connotes not so much a national flavor as the vital impulse and sheer physical vigor associated with the polonaise. This rondo-structured movement is characterized by unrestrained energy. As in the first movement, there is here a diversity of technical means employed, not the least which are the ingenious use of polyphonic imitation, including a fugue on the main theme and a feeling of symmetry. The swaggering main theme is also set off by a contrasting motif similar to a national hymn. The latter is predominant in the rousing coda that brings the symphony to its perky conclusion.
* The cover image is the street scene of Tchaikovsky's funeral, photographed in 1893.
* The audio file embedded/linked above is a full-length recording of Gergiev conducting the The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in Paris from late 2010. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is a more worthwhile recording, but is audio-only. This is fairly nice but a little slow and heavy. These are only examples. Please support working artists and purchase music and art legally. Thank you.