Folk Songs Borrowed from the “Little Russians”

St Michael Cathedral in Kiev. © Charles Thibo

A little over two years ago, the two sides agreed to an armistice. More than a thousand people have died since. Russia and Ukraine – a tragedy. More than a thousand years ago, the plains between the Carpathians and the river Don were the birthplace of what is today Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The “Rus of Kiev” was the first centrally organized state in the region, ruled by the dynasty of the Rurikides. Scandinavian merchants traveling along the rivers Don and Dnepr had settled there in the 8th century and federated the tribes. Gradually this empire expanded until the Mongols began invading the territory. When Kiev was sacked in 1242, the “Rus of Kiev” collapsed. A new Russian empire would rise later from the duchy of Moscow – including Ukraine at times and not at other times.

Nationalism on both sides

Some 500 years later, in 1872, Tchaikovsky wrote his joyful and charming Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, op. 17, called “Little Russian”. In the 19th century “Little Russia” was a slightly condescending Russian name for Ukraine. The idea “We are all part of Russia”, promoted by the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg, triggered an Ukrainian nationalism that explains the division of the country today between supporters of Ukrainian independence and supporters of an all-inclusive union with Russia.

As a composer not meddling with politics, Tchaikovsky certainly had no qualms about the nickname of his symphony, it reflected common parlance – in Moscow! The sobriquet had been coined by the music critic Nikolai Kashkin, a friend of Tchaikovsky. It referred to the three Ukrainian folk themes that the composer had used. The symphony, first performed in 1873, became popular instantly and also won the appraisal of the “Mighty Five” promoting “pure Russian” music. Because, seen from Moscow, the Ukraine always was and always would be part of Russia.

A stay in Ukraine

Tchaikovsky wrote the larger part of op. 17 while he stayed in Kamenka in Ukraine at an estate owned by his sister’s family, the Davydovs. It was apparently here that he heard the folk song “The Crane”, hummed by one of the servants. “I think it is my best work yet in terms of polished form, not hithero my strong suit”, he wrote to his brother in November 1872. However, Tchaikovsky would rework the piece a few years later while staying in Rome. Only the second movement would remain unchanged, all other parts underwent a major overhaul. The version of 1879/80 is the one commonly performed nowadays.   I enjoy the recording by Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev.

The mood of the first movement is set by the Ukrainian version of the folk song “Down by Mother Volga”, introduced by a horn solo. In the second movement, Tchaikovsky used a march he had composed for his opera “Ondine”. The third movement is composed along the principles of Beethoven’s scherzos: light and dynamic. The main theme of the last movement is Tchaikovsky’s version of the Ukrainian folk song “The Crane”. The French biographer André Lischke qualifies the earlier version of the symphony as more imaginative, while the later edition would be better balanced.

Glory and the silence of the dead

1872 was a year of celebration for Russia. It was the 200th anniversary of Peter the Great and the glorification of Russia reached a climax. Tchaikovsky did not escape this frenzy. A year later he would write from abroad: “My soul longs to return to Russia […] You are so beautiful in your silence.” Silence? Indeed. After the Polish uprising in 1863 the authorities clamped down on Ukrainian nationalists in St. Petersburg, Kiev and elsewhere with an iron fist. An eery silence.

© Charles Thibo

Published by

de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

One thought on “Folk Songs Borrowed from the “Little Russians””

  1. I was just talking to a friend yesterday about this work! Can’t wait to write about it myself. I agree with the composer about it being one of his best works, at least to that point, if not overall!

Comments are closed.