The nickname of Tchaikovsky's "Polish" symphony was rather capriciously attached, and six years after the composer's death, at that. Sir August Manns led the work's London premiere and affixed this inappropriate moniker, taking a cue from Tchaikovsky's parenthetical marking for the finale, Tempo di polacca. He could just as well have focused on the second movement Alla tedesca marking, thereby calling this symphony the "German." In any event, there is nothing particularly Polish about the work, but much that is Russian.
This symphony is cast in five movements, the only one of the composer's symphonies with more than the standard four. The work dates from 1874, just before the creation of Swan Lake, and the work, with a form resembling that of a dance suite, is dancelike in many individual stretches as well. Like the Second symphony it has no explicit programmatic content. The first movement, marked Moderato assai, tempo di Marcia funebre (for the introduction) and Allegro brillante (for the main section), is a colorful mixture of mostly light music. After a dark opening, the mood brightens with a proud theme of martial character. A lovely, exotic melody on oboe is then presented, and when the strings enter the music sweetens in typically Tchaikovskian manner. This movement, bustling with much energy and colored with brilliant orchestration, is rhythmically one of the composer's most intriguing creations.
The second movement (Allegro moderato e semplice) is subdued and balletic; the flavor of Swan Lake is especially pronounced here. The ensuing Andante elegiaco offers a horn theme vaguely reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony's motto. The mood remains light here, however, and features richly Romantic music that, ironically, sounds more German than anything else in the symphony, including the preceding "Alla tedesca" panel.
The Scherzo that follows is marked Allegro vivo. It is mischievous, rife with swirls and playful menace, the writing colorful and charming. The aforementioned finale (Allegro con fuoco) opens with a muscular heroic theme of typically Russian character. The music is polonaise-like (hence the "Tempo di polacca" marking referred to above), and the form is a rondo. An alternate theme is hymn-like and jubilant, and also very Russian-sounding. If the ending is a bit bombastic, even corny, it works well with this symphony whose manner is unabashedly direct and richly colorful throughout.
Typical performances of the Tchaikovsky Third Symphony last around 45 minutes.