The First Symphony, begun in March of 1866, was done anew by the composers twice. In this new (already third!) editing “Winter Dreams” was soon presented to the Moscow audience. Its premiere was given by the Russian Musical Society on February 3, 1868, under the baton of N. Rubinstein. “…The performance signified Tchaikovsky’s first outstanding success; rejected in St. Petersburg, his Symphony “Winter Dreams”… was so enthusiastically acclaimed by the Moscow public as to surpass even our (i. e., Tchaikovsky’s friends) boldest expectations… Tchaikovsky was deeply stirred; the warm reception accorded to such a serious composition as his Symphony in G minor made a very strong impression on him”. (N. D. Kashkin, “Reminiscences of Tchaikovsky”).
In this final variant, which is widely known today, the score of the first Symphony was published by P. I. Jurgenson in 1875.
The first Symphony gained wide popularity only in the Soviet period.
The Symphony’s programme is reflected in its title and the headings of the first two movements. The Symphony is based on travel impressions and embodies one of the favourite motives of Russian classical poetry connected with lyrical retlections of the country’s beautiful landscape scenes. The lyrical dreams of the first three movements give way to the scene of noisy popular festivities in the finale.
“Dreams of a Winter Journey” is the title given to the first movement (Allegro tranquillo). Against the background of a monotonous violin tremolo conveying the distant ringing of bells there arises a melancholy folk-song tune of the flute and the bassoon, which is reminiscent of a “coachman’s song”— the main landscape—theme of the first movement. The restless rhythmica! motif (the fanciful motif of dreams) accompanying the theme develops into a powerful fantastic image. The melancholy first theme is followed by the second subject — a light lyrical song reproducing the poetic idea of ‘Russia’s boundless expanses”.
Further development leads to the appearance of dance music…But the flashes of the initial landscape—theme are becoming ever more alarming and the exposition acquires a tensely—dramatic character. A few heavy sighs of the orchestra, a long pause, a brief transition, and the music is again dominated by a monotonous bell (woodwind and French horn triplets). The luring image of an endless, winding road appears in the new, emotional sounding of the strings.
The movement is concluded by a profoundly poetic picture: the fantastic motif of dreams grows fainter, the monotonous bell is no longer heard and there remains only the deep stillness of the snowbound expanses.
Second movement (Adagio cantabile ma non tanto). “Rugged Country— Cloudland”. The principal image of the movement—a softly—lyrical oboe tune accompanied by strings and occasional flute passages—serves as a background to the introductory and concluding parts (a melodious tune and chromatic intonations of muted strings), which provide a peculiar landscape colouring for a “rugged country—cloudland”. The charming sentimental melody with multiform emotional transformations—from a suppressed lament to a feeling of epic contemplation—fill the music with a stirring and profound content.
Third movement—Scherzo (Allegro scherzando giocaso). A series of light, melancholy-tinged images follow in quick succession like the illusory dreams of a traveller fatigued by a long winter road. “One gives free reign to the imagination, and fantasy draws the most wonderful designs”—these words of Tchaikovsky’s relating to the scherzo of the fourth Symphony are fully applicable to the scherzo of the first Symphony. A waltz-like melody appearing for a brief moment in the middle episode (trio) as a vague and dear recollection conveys a charming image which combines the artlessness and deep lyricism of the Russian folk song. Towards the end it recurs again, but this time it lacks inner firmness (in a minor key) and is accompanied by the initial rhythmic figure of the scherzo, which acquires a mysterious colouring in the beating of kettledrums.
Fourth movement—the Finale opens with a sombre introduction (Andante lagubre), based on the melody of an original folk song “Flowers in Bloom”. As the tempo of the music increases the melody is followed by the main theme of the finale (Allegro maestoso), distinguished for its gala spirit and dance-like rhythm. The introduction melody (as a secondary theme) also acguires a new, distinctively dance-like character. The noisy and colourful orchestral music coupled with heavy rhythms paints a vivijfj and merry picture of popular festivities.
In the concluding part there sounds again the sombre music of the introduction, which is brightened up by a new musical episode, and the finale ends with a solemnly-festive apotheosis.