1875: Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D major, age 35

(Wiki is an additional place to read about this symphony.)

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, was written in 1875. All his other symphonies are officially in minor keys, although much too much is made of that. Tchaikovsky’s music switches back and forth so often from major to minor that what key a symphony starts in is not very important. It is the only symphony to contain five movements. There is a waltz movement between the 1st and 2nd movements.

Tchaikovsky may have had in mind the Schumann Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) – also with five movements – because that symphony by Schumann impressed Tchaikovsky during his student days at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

Conductor: Evgeny Svetlanov

I. Introduzione e Allegro

II. Alla tedesca

III. Andante elegiaco (D minor – B♭ major – D major)

IV. Scherzo: Allegro vivo

V. Finale: Allegro con fuoco

The name…

The name “Polish Symphony” supposedly comes from the many Polish dance rhythms prominent in the symphony’s final movement. It was not Tchaikovksy’s name.

There is controversy over why Tchaikovksy used a polonaise, or what that meant. For Chopin the polonaise was a symbol of Polish independence, but in Tchaikovsky’s time in Tsarist Russia it is said to have been linked to Russian imperialism. Historians may be over-analyzing Tchaikovsky’s musical intentions. I can’t personally identify anything in the music as Polish.


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

I. Introduzione e Allegro: Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) (D minor) – Allegro briliante (D major)

This movement is complicated, as you can see from the tempo markings. It shows everything from “tempo of a funeral march” to a brilliant, lively tempo. Supposedly the symphony is in D major, but it starts on a diminished chord and immediately moves to Dm. The funeral march is the introduction. Then the rest of the movement follows. This should be an immediate sign that this is not a typical symphony with obvious sonata form.

II. Alla tedesca: Allegro moderato e semplice (B♭ major – G minor)

This is essentially a waltz. Alla tedesca is a term I don’t know, but apparently it just means in the style of a German dance.

III. Andante elegiaco (D minor – B♭ major – D major)

Also in 3/4 time, this movement opens with all winds, notably a flute solo. This movement is the most romantic in nature of the five, and it is roughly a variation of slow sonata ternary form without a development, although the traditional dominant-tonic recapitulation is abandoned for more distant keys, the first being in B♭ major (the subdominant to F) and the recapitulation in D major (the parallel major to D minor). This movement is atypically more lyrical than the second. Between the two is a contrasting middle section, consisting of material closely resembling the repeated eighth note triplet figures in the trio of the second movement. The movement closes with a brief coda with string tremolos, and a repeat of the wind solos accompanied by string pizzicatos from the opening of the movement.

IV. Scherzo: Allegro vivo (B minor)

The scherzo is in 2/4 time. Scherzos are typically in 3/4 time, but the tempo is so fast that it sounds like 4/4 time, where each beat is a triplet. More than anyone else Beethoven was responsible for establishing the norms, but many other composers keep the light feeling and fast tempo but change the meter, as Tchaikovsky does here.

V. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di polacca) (D major)

This movement is characterized by rhythms typical of a polonaise, a Polish dance, from which the symphony draws its name, but as I mentioned before, there is great confusion about Tchaikovsky’s intent.

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