Tchaikovsky: March Slave

Tchaikovsky completed his Slavonic March in the autumn of 1876, and it received its first performance in St.Petersburg on the 17th November of that year. The occasion was a concert in aid of Russian volunteers wounded in the Serbo/Turkish War, a war Russia was to join in the following year.

There was an air of patriotic enthusiasm at the time for a ‘wider’ Pan-Slavonic movement, to which Tchaikovsky lent his support. This was recognised (together with his varied State Commissions over the years) by the Tsar who, rather belatedly, awarded him a life pension in 1888.

The piece is based on Russian and Serbian folk melodies, and the score initially is headed “in the manner of a funeral march”. Four introductory bars lead into the 1st theme, heard low in bassoons and violas. Flutes and clarinets lift it an octave, then oboes lift the theme one more.

A second theme, less funereal, is now introduced by flutes, oboes and violins. From its 8th bar a “development” is introduced, the theme becoming fragmented throughout the orchestra. An accompanying triplet figure of semiquavers and pizzicato strings continues until a fortissimo climax, out of which a re-statement of the 1st theme evolves, with the orchestra throwing in its full weight. This episode eventually evaporates into what may be regarded as the “trio section”. The atmosphere is now more of “carnival”. Clarinets and bassoons introduce a four-bar rustic theme, soon to be taken up by the whole orchestra. Yet within the ensuing four bars the orchestra has found for itself a jolly two-bar theme, which evolves back into the previous theme. Out of the full orchestra’s participation tuba and strings hammer out the Russian National Anthem “God Save the Tsar”. A lengthy development based on the opening theme now ensues, until it re-emerges in all its triumphal glory on oboes, brass and cellos and played out into a valedictory chord.

The jaunty processional carnival atmosphere is now re-introduced by the clarinets with a jaunty dance rhythm. The horns then enter with a parallel marching theme (the 7th in this short work) out of which the Russian Anthem re-emerges and blazes forth in magisterial triumph, leading into a Coda of volleys of semiquavers and cannonades of crochets!