Tchaikovsky’s Polish Symphony

Listening to WQXR (classical music in NYC) last night, I though I heard the announcer explain that the next item, Tchaikovsky’s “Polish” Symphony (Symphony No. 3), was the only symphony to be written in a major key. Counterexamples crowded to mind like angry insects, so I decided I must have misheard. And indeed, what she said must have been something like “the only symphony he had written in a major key”. So: unique for Tchaikovsky, not for the music world as a whole.

But the symphony, rarely performed, then led me on to the world of dance, and George Balanchine.

Wikipedia on the symphony:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, was written in 1875. He began it at Vladimir Shilovsky’s estate at Ussovo on 5 June and finished on 1 August at Verbovka. Dedicated to Shilovsky, the work is unique in Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output in two ways: it is the only one of his seven symphonies (including the unnumbered Manfred Symphony) in a major key (discounting the unfinished Symphony in E♭ major); and it is the only one to contain five movements (an additional Alla tedesca movement occurs between the opening movement and the slow movement).

Its first performance in the United Kingdom was at the Crystal Palace in 1899, conducted by Sir August Manns, who seems to have been the first to refer to it as the “Polish Symphony”, in reference to the recurring Polish dance rhythms prominent in the symphony’s final movement. Several musicologists, including David Brown and Francis Maes, consider this name a faux pas. Western listeners, conditioned by Chopin’s use of the polonaise as a symbol of Polish independence, interpreted Tchaikovsky’s use of the same dance likewise; actually, in Tsarist Russia it was musical code for the Romanov dynasty and, by extension, Russian imperialism.

The symphony was used by George Balanchine as the score for the Diamonds section of his full length 1967 ballet Jewels, omitting the opening movement.

From the symphony, the second movement, which can be heard on YouTube here, with notes from the recording:

Sir Thomas Beecham thought highly enough of the work to make only its second British recording, with the Royal Philharmonic in 1947. We hear the second movement, a charming Tchaikovsky waltz in [German] ‘l[ä]ndler’ style, as per the marking “Alla Tedesca.”

Then the ballet, from Wikipedia:

Jewels is a three-act ballet created for the New York City Ballet by co-founder and founding choreographer George Balanchine. It premièred on Thursday, 13 April 1967 at the New York State Theater, with sets designed by Peter Harvey and lighting by Ronald Bates.

Jewels has been called the first full-length abstract ballet. It has three related movements Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds (usually separated by intermissions). It can also be seen as three separate ballets, linked by their jewel-colored costumes. Balanchine commented: “The ballet had nothing to do with jewels. The dancers are just dressed like jewels.” Each of the three acts features the music of a different composer: Emeralds is set to the music of Gabriel Fauré, Rubies to the music of Igor Stravinsky and Diamonds to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Rupert Pennefather in Jewels performed by the Royal Ballet:

The Polonaise finale from Diamonds, as performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, can be viewed on YouTube here. (I know that some people don’t care for Balanchine in general, and that some find the Paris Opera Ballet performances lacking in passion, but you take what you can get.)

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