What’s in a name? In the case of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, completed in 1866, it’s hard to say for sure. Tchaikovsky gave the work the descriptive title, Winter Daydreams (the first and second movements are subtitled, Dreams of a Winter Journey and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists). Beyond these descriptive phrases, the First Symphony remains pure music, without a program. At moments, the music may suggest the play of sunlight and shadow on a chilly, snow-covered winter landscape. But to experience the true essence of this music we have to leave behind these literal references and just listen.
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony isn’t played as often as his later symphonies. He struggled to complete the work, revising it several times amid the devastating criticism of his former teachers, Anton Rubenstein and Nikolai Zaremba. But listen to the second movement and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more beautiful in Tchaikovsky’s output. This is one of those circular, Russian-folk-song-inspired movements which reminds you that Russian music looks East as well as West. A long, lamenting melody reaches for an unattainable goal and then folds back on itself. It’s repeated by one group of instrumental voices and then another, eventually rising into a defiant, soaring statement in the horns. It’s a melody which demands that we listen, but defies resolution.
In 1883 Tchaikovsky described the First Symphony in a letter saying,
Although it is immature in many respects, it is essentially better and richer in content than many other more mature works.
Throughout the First Symphony, there are occasional hints of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Beyond all of this is the the unique, fully-formed sound of Tchaikovsky. In the first movement’s brass fanfares, it’s easy to hear the seeds of the opening of the Fourth Symphony. The final movement opens with the gloomy darkness of the solo bassoon. The woodwinds provide a brief, motivic glance back at the second movement.
Here is the complete Symphony No. 1 in G minor performed by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: