Tchaikovsky may not be considered a nationalist composer in the same sense as the group of Russian composers known as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful.” Nevertheless, he retained a love for Russian folk song and Orthodox chant his entire life. His liturgical music includes a setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and an All-Night Vigil which draw upon traditional chant. His affinity for folk song led him in 1868-1869 to publish Fifty Russian Folksongs arranged for piano duet. All but one he transcribed himself came from the collections of Villebois and Balakirev.
Tchaikovsky wrote much of the Little Russian Symphony during his summer holiday at Kamianka (Kamenka) in Ukraine with his sister Aleksandra’s family, the Davydovs. The Davydov estate had become the composer’s favorite refuge. Alexandra had, in fact, encouraged the composer to make Kamenka his second home. His affection for the estate bore fruit in his using local songs in the symphony he was writing. He even once wrote, in jest, that true credit for the Little Russian’s finale should have gone “to the real composer of the said work—Peter Gerasimovich.” Gerasimovich, the elderly butler in the Davydov household, sang the folk-song “The Crane” to Tchaikovsky while the composer was working on the symphony.
One of Tchaikovsky’s favorite anecdotes resulted from his nearly losing the sketches for the Little Russian on the way back to Moscow. To persuade a recalcitrant postmaster to hitch the horses to the coach in which he and his brother Modest had been travelling, Tchaikovsky presented himself as “Prince Volkonsky, gentleman of the Emperor’s bedchamber.” When they reached their evening stop, he noticed his luggage missing—including his work on the symphony. Fearing the postmaster had opened the luggage and learned his identity, he sent someone to fetch it. The intermediary returned empty-handed. The postmaster would only release the luggage to the prince himself.
Steeling himself, Tchaikovsky returned. His luggage had not been opened, much to his relief. He made small talk for some time with the postmaster and eventually asked the postmaster’s name. “Tchaikovsky”, the postmaster replied. Stunned, the composer thought this was perhaps a sharp-witted revenge. Eventually he learned “Tchaikovsky” was really the postmaster’s name. After learning this fact, he delighted in recounting the story.
Tchaikovsky had used folk songs in his early days in St. Petersburg and in his student overture The Storm. Now he wanted to use folk songs as valid symphonic material. Tchaikovsky’s greatest debt in this regard was to Glinka’s Kamarinskaya. He believed fervently that in Kamarinskaya lay the core of the entire school of Russian symphonic music, “just as the whole oak is in the acorn”, as he wrote in his diary in 1888.
Kamarinskaya is based on two melodies. The first is a bridal song, “Izza gor” (From beyond the mountains). The second, the title song of the piece, is a naigrïsh, an instrumental dance to an ostinato melody repeated for as long as the dancers can keep up with it. Glinka uses the principle from folk song of allowing the musical structure to unfold around a thematic constant—or actually two constants, since he uses two folk songs. He varies the background material surrounding these songs more than the songs themselves—orchestral color (timbre), harmonization, counterpoint. This way, Glinka preserves the original character of the dance, complementing it with creative variations in the orchestral treatment.
Ideally, the themes in a Western piece interact, contrast and change. This activity fuels the composition’s growth as an organic creation. Tension continues building as this thematic dialogue becomes increasingly complex. This dialogue or interchange eventually propels the piece to a climactic point of resolution. Kamarinskaya does not follow this pattern. Nor can it. The ostinato melody of the second song will not allow any motivic development without distorting the character of the piece. The music repeats itself constantly, albeit with changing backgrounds. Because of this lack of thematic growth, the music remains static, not moving forward. Nor was this a unique problem with Kamarinskaya. Russian music, especially Russian folk music, stubbornly refused to follow the Western principles Tchaikovsky had learned in St. Petersburg. This may have been one reason his teacher Anton Rubinstein did not consider folk songs to be viable musical material for anything other than local color.
For Tchaikovsky, Kamarinskaya offered a viable example of the creative possibilities of folk songs in a symphonic structure, using a variety of harmonic and contrapuntal combinations. It also offered a blueprint on how such a structure could be made to work, barring the potential for inertia or over-repetition. Because of his compositional training, Tchaikovsky could build the finale of the Little Russian more solidly and over a greater time scale than either Glinka or Mussorgsky could have done. Without Kamarinskaya, however, Tchaikovsky knew he did not have had a foundation upon which to build that finale.