Marche slave, Op. 31 (Slavonic March)

    Composer: born May 7, 1840, KamskoVotinsk, Viatka province, Russia; died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg.

    Work composed: During the SerboTurkish War, the Russian Musical Society of Moscow organized a benefit concert for the Slavonic Charity Committee’s work on behalf of Russian soldiers who fought alongside the Serbs against the Turks. Nikolai Rubinstein asked Tchaikovsky, who sympathized with the Serbs, to compose a patriotic work honoring the soldiers. Tchaikovsky composed his Marche slave in five days, completing it on October 7, 1876.

    Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, tam tam and strings.

    Four years before Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture, his most famous example of patriotic music, Nikolai Rubinstein asked Tchaikovsky to write a similar work, in honor of Russian soldiers who aided their Serb allies against the Ottoman Turks in the Serbo-Turkish War. Tchaikovsky agreed, completing and his Russo-Serbian March in just five days. He later renamed it Slavonic March; the work is also known by its French title, Marche slave. By any name, Marche slave soon became one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites among his compositions. He especially enjoyed conducting it, and often closed his podium appearances with this rousing, triumphant music. 

    Serbian and Russian folk songs are prominently featured in Marche slave. Audiences will recognize in particular the Russian national anthem, “God Save the Czar,” which Tchaikovsky also used in the 1812 Overture. The music begins, as Tchaikovsky noted in the score, “with the movement of a funeral march;” this section portrays the Turks’ oppression of the Serbs. A more cheerful section signals the Russian arrival to support their Serbian allies, and “God Save the Czar” makes its first appearance. A tempestuous third section reprises the Serbs cry for help. The Russians again rally to their cause, and the music ends in unequivocal victory. 

    After the premiere of Marche slave, an audience member described the scene: “The rumpus and roar that broke out in the hall beggars description. The whole audience rose to its feet, many jumped up upon their seats: cries of ‘bravo’ and ‘hurrah’ were mingled together. The march had to be repeated, after which the same storm broke out afresh … It was one of the most stirring moments of 1876. Many in the hall were weeping.” 

    Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz