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Serenade for Strings Op. 48

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Serenade in C for String Orchestra, Op.48

Pezzo in forma di Sonatina

Valse

Elégie

Finale: Tema Russo

Nicholas Rubinstein, the pianist and conductor, who did more than any other to popularise Tchaikovsky’s music, commissioned him in the spring of 1880 to write a piece for one of the concerts connected with the All Russian Art and Industrial Exhibition that was being planned for Moscow two years hence. Staying that summer on his sister’s country estate at Kamenka near Kiev, the composer set to work on the commission – the overture 1812 – and felt sure that since his heart was not in it the piece would have no artistic merit. At the same time he conceived from ‘inner compulsion’, as he described it, this utterly different and wholly charming Serenade.

Both works were completed in October 1880, and Tchaikovsky felt pleased with the Serenade. ‘This is a piece from the heart,’ he wrote, ‘and so I venture to say it does not lack artistic worth.’ Eduard Napravnik conducted the highly successful premiere in St.Petersburg on 30 October 1881, and the Serenade was received with equal enthusiasm in Moscow the following June when Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s former teacher, decided it was his best work and put it into another exhibition concert. Tchaikovsky’s first thought had been to make this a symphony or a string quintet, but he finally opted for the medium of string orchestra. It was a happy choice; no other Russian composer save possibly Borodin could match his technical skill and finesse in writing for strings.

The Serenade opens with a slow introduction, the measured descending theme being closely related to the principal theme of the finale. The first movement is entitled ‘Piece in sonatina form’, meaning that it is constructed on sonata-form lines but without a development section. In the main Allegro the Schumann-like first subject is stated and extended, and later combines with the second subject, which connects with the introduction’s idea of a descending scale. All this is repeated, and the movement ends with a return to the introduction.

The two middle movements have long been popular favourites. Tchaikovsky was a master of the waltz, of course, and the one he conceived for the Serenade is among his best. Its memorable tune is built on the opening of a rising scale, while the second subject picks up the descending scale idea. The following Elégie is an eloquent slow movement, most obviously ‘a piece from the heart’.

A hauling song from the Volga region provides a slow introduction to the finale, leading into a brilliant Allegro con spirito with two themes. The first of these is a lively Russian folk tune, the second is original Tchaikovsky. The folk tune turns out to have been the basis of the whole work, as is made clear when the first movement’s introduction reappears at the end.

© Eric Mason


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