In 1880, Tchaikovsky returned to Russia after staying for a while in Paris. In that same year a serious family mourning, the death of his father, led him to a state of profound physical and mental prostration (further aggravated by chronic alcoholism), from which he was saved only by his creative activity. In such a difficult period, he managed to complete four important works: the second concerto for piano and orchestra, the Italian Capriccio, the 1812 Overture (which he personally never liked), and the Serenade for string orchestra in C major.
Tchaikovsky was particularly pleased with the Serenade for strings from the very first moment; it is in fact a composition carrying a certain sense of serenity rarely found in his other works. In a letter to his benefactress Nadežda von Meck, Tchaikovsky noted:
“I composed this serenade animated by the impulse of an intimate conviction … it is a piece that comes from the bottom of my heart and I like to think that for this reason it is not without of real quality”.
The serenade was first performed privately on November 21 (December 3) 1880 at the Moscow Conservatory by an ensemble of professors and students to surprise Tchaikovsky, who was returning there for a visit after a long absence.
The first public performance took place in St. Petersburg on 18 (30) October 1881, at a concert of the Russian Musical Society, under the direction of Eduard Francevič Napravnik.
The serenade became one of the compositions that Tchaikovsky loved to include in the programs of his tours in Europe, confirming the fact that he considered it one of his most successful and musically valid works.
Émile Reutlinger, Tchaikovsky in 1888
Originally the serenade was conceived for a string quintet – 2 violins, viola, cello, and double bass. However, later Tchaikovsky decided to proceed with an overall expansion of the original project. On the second page of the score, Tchaikovsky wrote, “The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes.”
The piece is structured in 4 movements: a Pezzo in forma di sonatina (Andante non troppo – Allegro moderato), a Waltz (Moderato – Tempo di Valse), an Elégie (Larghetto elegiaco), and a Finale: Russian Theme (Andante – Allegro con spirito).
Tchaikovsky – Serenade for strings
Should you need a score you can find one here.
Andante non troppo
An homage to Mozart and classicism, the first movement takes the structure of the sonata form: an exposition with 2 themes, a development, and a recapitulation. Everything is framed by a slow introduction and a coda. With, in this case, one exception: the development is missing.
The theme of the introduction – which will return both at the end of this movement and at the end of the entire serenade – is based on a descending scale. It was peculiar of Tchaikovsky to write themes only based on a scale (we’ll also see that in the next movement). In fact, he even made a bet once over it. The result was one of the most famous themes of the Swan Lake ballet.
Something that happens most often than not is the uncontrolled volume of the opening: it’s written sempre marcatissimo, it’s broad, and string players have a field day with it.
So much that often the forte dynamic is ignored, everything is played fortissimo, and there is no room for the crescendo on bar 5. So, make sure to control the dynamic right from the start or you will have no place to go.
For a technical analysis, along with some exercises, take a look at this other video
An upward scale of the cellos and basses takes to a repetition of the theme, an octave lower, ending on a chord in triple forte.
The same scale is retaken by the first violins, 2 octaves higher, in legato, bringing up a third iteration of the theme. This time, the atmosphere starts to change: no double basses, no double stops, cellos in a higher register, legato instead of marcato. Moreover, the phrase is not finished but left suspended. And repeated an octave lower
The suspense continues: dynamics gradually go down to piano and pianissimo, ending the introduction on an E major chord.
Thinking in classical terms: are we modulating to A minor?
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Moderato – Tempo di Valse
The second movement contains one of the most graceful and successful waltzes ever written by Tchaikovsky; it almost seems to anticipate the Allegro con grazia of the sixth symphony, but here the dance takes on a lighter and more carefree character, without the moments of restless introspection typical of the other composition.
The structure is a clear ABA with a coda. The theme is played by the first violins in piano, very graciously