The String Serenade and the 1812 Overture were composed back-to-back during the autumn of 1880. While Tchaikovsky regarded the Serenade as one of his finest works, he could not say the same of the work which would soon be inducted into the musical hall-of-fame: "The overture will be very loud and noisy, but I wrote it without any warm feelings of love and so, it will probably be of no artistic merit. But the serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart, and so, I venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities."
The structure of Tchaikovsky's Serenade consciously defies the precedent of classical models; rather than backing off toward the more relaxed subdominant tonality in the interior movements (as Mozart or Haydn would have done), Tchaikovsky casts the second movement in the more potent dominant key (G major), and the third movement in the still more intensely-charged dominant-of-the-dominant (D major). The balance and emotional weight of the Serenade is thus uncharacteristically shifted away from the outer movements in order to stress the musical centerpiece, the elegiac third movement, one of Tchaikovsky's most inspired musical moments.
The first movement, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, is book-ended by a chorale marked Andante non troppo (the noble use of C major here is reminiscent of the initial bars of Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger). The sonatina suggested in the title begins at the Allegro moderato, taking the form of a terse sonata structure. "The first movement is my homage to Mozart. It is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model."
The Minuet and Trio of Mozart begat the Scherzo of Beethoven begat the Intermezzo of Brahms begat the Waltz of Tchaikovsky. Considering the dance origins of the minuet and trio, and its usurpation by the abstract instrumental genres of the 18th century, it seems sensible that Tchaikovsky would integrate the most amorous of 19th-century dances into his symphonies and the String Serenade.
The third movement, Elegia, opens with another chorale-like passage, here, one that incessantly aspires to rise above its mezza-voce tessitura. The tender melodic writing of the first theme is brought to fruition upon its return, elaborated with another, more florid melodic layer; the transparent soaring counterpoint floats above the lightest of accompaniments, arpeggiated pizzicato figures in the low strings. The darker, more desperate voice found in the composer's last three symphonies dominates much of the mood of this movement.
The fourth movement, Finale (Tema Russo), opens with an introduction in the dominant key (G), bringing us back one step closer to earth, smoothly linking the D-major Elegia and the C-major Finale. The Andante introduction is based on a Russian folk tune, a Volga "hauling song." Both the main theme of the Allegro con spirito, based on the shape of the Serenade's opening chorale, and that chorale itself, which is the movement's penultimate gesture, provide an arching sense of unity which spans the entire work.
- David Fick is a composer and conductor.