September COMPOSER: pytor tchaikovsky
marche slave, in B flat minor, op.31, 1876
Marche Slave (Slavonic March) is the result of a commission Tchaikovsky received for a concert to benefit wounded Serbian soldiers who had been fighting the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). It’s definitely full of some militaristic rhythms and nationalist themes. But for all of this, I was immediately attracted to this piece because of its sense of theatre and fun. It’s said the music moves from a funeral wake to a great victory and you can feel that movement. There’s no chance to reflect for long in its melancholy moments before the quickening pace restores the festivity of life. If I were wounded, this is the kind of music that would lift my spirits.
Listen to Israel Philharmonic Orchestra & Zubin Meht play Marche Slave
At 10 minutes long Marche Slave is a short emotive burst of music. It was heavily influenced by Serbian and Russian folk themes and while it was meant to be patriotic these influences give it the feeling of an everyday/every person sort of patriotism than any en masse nationalism. At points it feels like a foot stomping, dress flowing dance, at others like moments of head-bowing contemplation.
Imagine people walking together 10 abreast like a marching band or soldiers. So begins a slow rhythmical march, heads bowed, sombre. Then all in time with each other slowly a leg flicks out to the side in a half circle. The march goes on. Next the leg does a half circle and a small a skip. The march goes on. Heads are raised, the other leg circles and skips, arms one then the other into the air and all the while the march goes on to the same rhythm. Until it ends with each marcher dancing and marching as one.
Tchaikovsky was often berated for the Western influence on his compositions. So it is interesting here, how well this piece was received as a patriotic anthem. It is a sign of how well he did at merging Russian and Western music together. Something which he must have worked hard at reconciling for himself as it seems that in his personal life (Tchaikovsky was homosexual) and in his musical life he was caught in between the worlds that were deemed appropriate.
Tchaikovsky was never shy about challenging himself. In his late 40s he began conducting and this piece, Marche Slave, was the first he ever conducted. In a letter to his sister he claimed to have been ‘nervous and clumsy but I managed…’ His confidence and abilities grew and eventually he was in demand and touring Europe and even the USA. I like to think that he found a place to belong at the head of those orchestras.
*Images in order of appearance courtesy of public domain, public domain and FriedC via CC