Marche Slave (pronounced ‘Slahv’ and meaning Slavonic March) was written in 1876 at a time when Tchaikovsky was at a low ebb, struggling with all aspects of his life including finances and his sexuality. Shortly afterwards he was set on his feet by the mysterious widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose financial support meant that he could compose freely and allow his imagination full rein — her condition being that they should never meet. One of the first fruits of his new-found confidence was the wonderful Fourth Symphony (1877), which he dedicated to Mme von Meck.
March Slave, however, was written to a commission from the Russian Musical Society for a charity concert in aid of the wounded from the conflict between Serbia and Turkey, in which the Russian government and many citizens supported the Serbs. Its premiere took place late in 1876, conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein.
As was often the case in similar pieces, such as the 1812 Overture (1882), Tchaikovsky revelled in quoting apposite songs to illuminate the sentiments of the work, although his choice of the key of B flat minor (5 flats) for the non-transposing instruments such as strings, woodwind except for clarinets, and trombones creates numerous technical difficulties.
The tortured opening section of the work, using the harmonic minor of B flat, describes the Turkish oppression of Serbia, and uses two Serbian folksongs, Bright sun, you do not shine equally, and Gladly does the Serb become a soldier. The work changes into B flat major to portray the Russians swarming to help the Serbs and we hear another folk-like melody which gradually increases in intensity until the Russian National Anthem blazes, just as it was later to in the 1812 Overture. Reiteration of the ‘oppression’ music eventually brings us to its use as a counterpoint to a triumphant repeat of the Anthem, then finally the coda brings the work to a joyous conclusion.