Peter Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies have such a firm place in the repertoire that perhaps no one misses the first three. They appear on concerts much less frequently and certainly get less air time on the radio. Some music does not receive many performances because it is mediocre music, or perhaps because it is unreasonably difficult to perform. Neither is the case with Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies.
Early in his career, Tchaikovsky struggled with the absolute disconnect between western European musical forms, especially sonata form, and traditional Russian culture. Russian culture created static forms, unlike the goal-oriented sonata form. Tchaikovsky himself much preferred to write complete melodies, rather than the kind of fragmentary themes suitable for sonata form’s development section.
By the time he started the Fourth Symphony, the formal innovations Franz Liszt introduced in his symphonic poems basically solved Tchaikovsky’s problem by giving him a more congenial form for symphonic writing. That fact hardly makes failures of his formal struggles in the first three symphonies. Listening to them, one would never know the musical and emotional trouble they caused him, and they are better music than some much better-known orchestral pieces.
Symphony no. 1 in G minor, op. 13 (Winter Daydreams)
Tchaikovsky began his First Symphony in March 1866. Later that spring, he wrote to his younger brother Anatoli that he was finding it extremely difficult to make progress with it and that he was afraid he’d die before finishing it. He was ready to start orchestrating in in June, but suffered the worst nervous attack of his life, with frightening hallucinations, in July. He never again worked on any composition at night.
He was unable to complete the symphony that summer, but he decided to show it to Anton Rubinstein and Nikolay Zaremba in hopes of getting approval for a performance with the Russian Musical Society concerts in St. Petersburg. They disapproved of it vehemently. After some revisions, they accepted the second and third movements.
The audience proved indifferent after the first performance of the third movement in December 1866. Both movements were performed, with better success in February 1867. The first performance of the entire symphony took place in February 1868 and was received with enthusiasm. In 1874, before the symphony’s publication, Tchaikovsky wrote a new second subject for the first movement and made some other minor changes.
Tchaikovsky himself named his First Synphony “Winter Daydreams.” One would never know by listening to it the nightmares it caused him.
Symphony no. 2 in C minor, op. 17 (Little Russian)
In contrast to the number of references to the First Symphony in Tchaikovsky’s correspondence, he did not write to anyone about the Second Symphony until it was almost finished. According to a letter to his brother Modest in November 1872, his colleague Nikolai Kashkin called the new symphony a work of genius.
Tchaikovsky himself considered it his best work in terms of its form. Two weeks later, he wrote in another letter that he didn’t think it proper for him to boast how pleased he was with it.
After the work’s premiere in January or February 1873 (the Russian and Western calendars differing by 12 days), Tchaikovsky wrote to his father that it was so successful it was scheduled to be repeated later in the same season and that he had received a royalty from the Russian Musical Society for it.
Despite this success, Tchaikovsky was less pleased on hearing the symphony than he had been while he was composing it. He had it published both in full score and reduced for two pianos later that same year. In 1879, however, he rewrote the entire first movement except for the introduction and coda, drastically revised the third movement, and shortened the Finale. Only the second movement escaped the revision unscathed.
Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is known as the “Little Russian” Symphony. That seems odd for his closest approach to date to German symphonic form, but he did not assign the nickname.
Symphony no. 3 in D major, op. 29 (Polish)
This symphony, again known by a nickname that Tchaikovsky himself didn’t use, presents at least three features that distinguish it from all of his other symphonies. It is the only one in a major key, and it has five movements. The third distinguishing may not mean a lot to many music lovers, but, well, there aren’t very many symphonies at all that have a trombone solo!
The Third Symphony has even less of a paper trail than the Second. In one letter during the summer of 1875 Tchaikovsky wrote that he was working on a new symphony, but not spending all his time on it.
Nonetheless, he noted on the title page of the full score’s fair copy that it was started on June 5, 1875 and completed on August 1 of the same year. In other words, without putting any pressure on himself, he finished the final orchestration less than three months after he began the first sketches. By the way, the autograph scores no longer exist for the first two symphonies.
The premiere took place in Moscow in November 1875, on the first concert of the season. Tchaikovsky thought its craftsmanship was a step forward for him, but that none of the thematic ideas were especially good. The symphony as a whole succeeded admirably, but he expressed no great enthusiasm in his description of it.