Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings
Composed in 1880, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s popular Serenade for Strings received its premiere at a private event at Moscow Conservatory in December of the same year. The first public performance of the piece was in October of 1881 in St Petersburg. The four-movement work is heavily influenced by the music of W.A. Mozart, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly.
Movement I – Pezzo in forma di sonatina
Also known as the ‘little sonata’, the opening movement is cast in sonata form. The iconic opening sequence is a central figure for this whole work as it reprises a number of times. The rich chorale that opens the piece is broadly scored for the whole ensemble, creating a powerful opening insight into the movement. The chord sequence at the beginning lays the foundations for the next few sequences of themes based around similar chords. As the tempo picks up, this movement garners quite the tempo. Tchaikovsky’s signature rich textures and Romantic style keeps the music moving along nicely.
The opening chorale then returns near the end of the movement as the music heads towards the climax. With the use of pizzicato playing on some parts, the excitement builds within the varying textures. The reprise of the opening choral helps close this first movement just as it began – with all the strings together again.
Movement II – Walzer
The waltz-style of the second movement is presented as a very classical stately dance, the likes of which Mozart would have also used. Deceptively complex, this movement is full of intimate movement between parts as well as heavily decorated melodies. Unlike the previous movement, the feel of this music is much lighter and elegant in style. The quick melodies fly around to all parts of the ensemble, with the violins leading for a majority of the movement. Just as light as it began, the second movement concludes delicately.
Movement III – Elegy
Tchaikovsky’s signature lyrical writing comes to the forefront in the evocative third movement. After a slow and quiet introduction, the melody grows from the middle of the ensemble outwards, as each part adds to the ever-growing textures. The ebb and flow of dynamics throughout create dramatic climaxes and eerie quiet passages. Nearing the end of this movement the music begins to fade into a much quieter dynamic, like that of the start of the movement. The strings fade out completely towards the end as harmonics are played, adding a spiritual end to this powerful movement.
Movement IV – Finale
Opening with muted strings, the quiet opening is subdued and mysterious. Based on a Russian folk song, the introductory passage is a far cry from the main theme for this movement. Also based on a Russian folk song, the frolicking central theme is fast moving and based on dance and movement. This very quick and intense theme is a proper workout for the ensemble as intricate lines are passed around and intertwined with one another. There are some indications of Tchaikovsky’s influence from Mozart as the stately counter-melody is heard. As the music gets faster with every passing passage, the creativity from Tchaikovsky’s pen keeps on pushing further. As the music heads into the coda section the listener may expect to hear a resolution in C major, however, remember the importance of the opening chorale in the first movement? Well it is back with vengeance when you least expect it. As the strings fly into a frenzy, a short pause leads into a reprise of the chorale.
Now having tied the movements together using the chorale theme, Tchaikovsky looks to the fourth movement’s fast Russian folk song theme. The strings, fizzing with joy and excitement, rush towards the end of the piece, with the ensemble landing back in the home key. The quick changes of themes in this finale movement tricks the ear a lot, which makes it even more satisfying when the last few bars are eventually played.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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