Tchaikovsky wrote all four of his orchestral suites in the period between the compostion of his Fourth (1877-1878) and Fifth (1888) Symphonies. Though none of the suites has ever attained a popularity akin to that of the symphonies, the Suite No. 2 (1883), subtitled "Caractéristique," has suffered particular neglect, likely because of its impractical requirement of four accordions in one movement. The work comprises a series of almost balletic character pieces. The main exception is the first movement, "Jeu de sons" (Game of Sounds), whose dimensions (though not its mercurial themes) suggest the opening movement of a symphony. A slow, graceful introduction evokes both the ballet stage and the opening of the composer's Variations on a Rococo Theme (1876). The atmosphere becomes increasingly dark; soon, however, it takes off in a more impulsive direction. Throughout the movement, Tchaikovsky relies on material of a "scurrying" character, calling to mind the Fourth Symphony; at one point he subjects it to fugal treatment.
The second movement, Valse, is occasionally omitted from performances and recordings. It is graceful, playful, wistful, and subject to frequent concentrated tempo shifts. A dreamier section dominated by the woodwinds de-emphasizes the 3/4 meter, but the more obviously waltz-like material repeats its way to the end. The Scherzo burlesque is almost entirely derived from a repetitive nattering figure in the first bars. This idea, sometimes reduced to a mere three-note outline, slips quickly through the orchestra. Just before the movement's midpoint the motive is assigned to the four accordions in a mocking "tribute" to the banal, repetitive music often associated with that instrument. The movement's middle section is marked by a broad, distinctively Russian theme, first sung out by the brass, which soon cedes to the accordions and their inane tune.
In the fourth movement, Rêves d'enfant (Child's Dreams), the woodwinds introduce a pensive theme, answered by a brighter childlike tune in the strings. These elements, as well as further folk-inspired material, alternate throughout the movement. The playful finale, Danse baroque, sounds more like a danse russe than a souvenir from the time of Bach. Its spirit and percussive splash immediately call to mind the Dance of the Tumblers from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden, premiered in the previous year.