Toward the Heavens

Toward The Heavens Concert Graphic

Itinerary: We’ll be treated to compelling and seldom explored works by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn on this don’t-miss sojourn. Unforgettable melodies and powerful choruses will inspire us.


  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2
  • Mendelssohn: Lobgesang
  • Soloist — DSSO Chorus
  • Soloist — Rachel Inselman, soprano
  • Soloist — Christina Christensen, mezzo soprano
  • Soloist — David Blalock, tenor

Program Notes

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17
BORN: May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg
WORK COMPOSED: 1872; revised version 1879
WORLD PREMIERE: February 7, 1873, in Moscow, Nicolai Rubinstein conducting; revised version on February 12, 1881, in Saint Petersburg, Karl Zike conducting
INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam) and strings. Duration: 32 minutes.

Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony earned the nickname Little Russian (at the time an affectionate name for Ukraine) from the Moscow music critic Nicolai Dimitrievich Kashkin. Kashkin thought it would be an appropriate name for the work as it includes several Ukrainian folk tunes and, coincidentally, Tchaikovsky composed most of the symphony in Ukraine. In 1860 Tchaikovsky’s younger sister Alexandra married Lev Davydov and his estate, Kamenka, near Kiev, became a second home for Tchaikovsky. During his summer holiday at the Davydov estate Tchaikovsky became more familiar with the Ukrainian folk songs and he once wrote, in jest, that the credit for the symphony’s finale should go to Peter Gerasimovich, the elderly butler at the Davydov estate who sang the folk song The Crane to him while he was working on the symphony.

One of Tchaikovsky’s favorite anecdotes, that he delighted in telling, comes from his nearly losing the sketches for the Little Russian. On his way back to Moscow he had to persuade an uncooperative postmaster to hitch the horses to the coach in which he and his brother Modest had been traveling by presenting himself as ‘Prince Volkonsky’. When they reached their evening stop he noticed his luggage was missing – including the sketches for the symphony. He sent someone to collect it, but they returned empty-handed claiming that the postmaster would release the luggage only to the prince himself. Tchaikovsky went and was relieved to discover that the luggage had not been opened. He made small talk with the postmaster and learned that the postmaster’s name was Tchaikovsky. At first he thought that this was a little bit of witty revenge taken on him for impersonating a prince, but eventually learned that the postmaster’s name was really Tchaikovsky.

In his early days in Saint Petersburg Tchaikovsky had used folk songs in some of his student compositions. The challenge he took on was to use folk songs as symphonic material and his model was Kamarinskaya by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), a fountainhead of Russian music. Glinka used folk song melodies as themes and varied the background material with changing harmonization, counterpoint and timbre, keeping the themes themselves virtually constant. Tchaikovsky believed that the core of the entire school of Russian symphonic music lay in Kamarinskaya, “just as the whole oak is in the acorn,” as he wrote in his diary in 1888.

The Little Russian was met with great success at its premiere and also found favor among ‘The Five’, as the group of nationalist composers, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, were known. The relationship between ‘The Five’ and Tchaikovsky was always a little tender; while they admired Tchaikovsky’s talents, there was a suspicion of his conservatory training and his use of Western forms. The use of folk songs pleased the group, although Cui was critical of it, and the composer himself was also quite pleased with his new symphony. He told his father that the “success was so great that the symphony will be played again at the tenth concert, and a subscription has been started to make me a present. Also I received 300 rubles from the Musical Society. . . . I am delighted with all the success and the material profit that has accrued from it.” However, with all the initial success and the composer’s pleasure with the piece, Cui’s criticism of it may have contributed to Tchaikovsky reworking the symphony seven years later. The end result was essentially a rewriting of the first movement and a shortening of the finale.

The Second Symphony opens with a fairly slow introduction, like most every major work of Tchaikovsky’s, with a a single horn introducing the Ukrainian song Down by Mother Volga, which was associated with the Cossack rebel Stenka Razin. As the tune continues to reappear, note the changing background material that was discussed earlier. The atmosphere changes quite drastically with new melodies and a faster tempo developing the original song, until the intensity is immediately cut off and Down by Mother Volga makes its final appearance.

The second movement began its life as a bridal march for Tchaikovsky’s unpublished opera Undine and in the central section he quotes the folk song Spin, O My Spinner. The third movement, a lively scampering scherzo, has the character of a folk song but does not actually quote one. After an expansive fanfare (a la Mussorgsky) introducing the fourth movement, Tchaikovsky quotes the folk song The Crane and subjects it to colorful and increasingly intricate variations. It is these three last movements that are most indicative of Tchaikovsky’s musical language.

Tchaikovsky wrote seven symphonies, six of which are numbered and the Manfred Symphony (composed between the Fourth and Fifth). Most of us are only familiar with symphonies Four, Five and Six; the opportunity to hear the Second Symphony is a rare pleasure. Does it deserve to be one of this great composer’s neglected works? You be the judge.

FELIX MENDELSSOHN Hymn of Praise, Op. 52 (Lobgesang)
BORN: February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany
DIED: November 4, 1847, in Leipzig
WORLD PREMIERE: June 25, 1840, in Leipzig at St. Thomas Church, Mendelssohn conducting
INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, organ, strings as well as three soloists (two sopranos and tenor) and mixed chorus. Duration: 65 minutes.

Written for the 400th anniversary of the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type printing system, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, or Hymn of Praise, was one of his most popular compositions during his lifetime. But it has now fallen into obscurity and is the least well-known of his orchestral works. He described the work as “A Symphony-Cantata After Words of the Holy Bible” and decades after his death it was published as Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major. This only adds to the confusion regarding Mendelssohn’s symphonies; his Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1824, his Fifth in 1830, his Fourth in 1833 and the Third in 1841-42. The new Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis (MWV), published in 2009, no longer lists Lobgesang among the symphonies, but rather among the sacred vocal works.

Mendelssohn actually began work on a purely instrumental symphony in B-flat major around 1838-39. When a commission arrived for a work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention, Mendelssohn revisited his sketches and used some of his earlier material resulting in a three-movement sinfonia. Using Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a model, he merged the sinfonia with a group of vocal movements requiring soloists and chorus. He chose texts from the Bible praising God and mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment, with the implied agent being the Gutenberg Bible.

Not only does Mendelssohn celebrate Gutenberg’s invention, he also celebrates the German Reformation, which was considerably advanced by the spread of literacy and the advent of printing. He also is celebrating German church music, especially the sacred music of J. S. Bach and the oratorios of Handel, breaking down the division between music for the concert hall and music for the church. The premiere was held in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach had been the music director from 1723 until his death in 1750.

It’s difficult to ascertain why there has been such a drastic change in the popularity of Lobgesang. The score for Lobgesang is what it was in 1840, but listeners change. Listeners approaching the work today might consider what Mendelssohn wanted to convey. Robert Schumann called the work one of Mendelssohn’s “freshest and most charming creations,” singling out the response to the duet “I waited for the Lord”: “There broke forth in the audience a whispering which counts for more in the church than loud applause in the concert-hall. It was like a glimpse into a heaven of Raphael’s Madonnas’ eyes.”

Concert will be broadcast live on WDSE-WRPT

Saturday, April 13, 2019 • 7:00 PM
Duluth, MN, United States
DECC Symphony Hall

Venue Details

350 Harbor Drive
Duluth, MN 55802
United States