In 1871, when he started his first string quartet, Tchaikovsky was leading a quiet and relatively obscure life, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, writing little piano pieces, sitting in his country garden. The scandals, drama, and neuroses were some years away. And he had not written any of his symphonies, concertos, ballets, or operas.
His chamber music output would, in toto, be small: three string quartets, a piano trio, and the string sextet subtitled “Souvenir de Florence.” The best known of them is the present String Quartet, not least because it encapsulates one of classical music’s greatest hits, albeit usually in arrangement for different instrumental combinations – string orchestra, most commonly – its slow movement, Andante cantabile, which according to Tchaikovsky’s own diary moved Tolstoy to tears.
The opening theme of Op. 11 is played softly, in unison, syncopated within the unusual meter of 9/8. The rising and falling opening chords reminded someone or other of the sound/playing, of “an accordion” and in some circles this nickname has been attached to the quartet as a whole. Which strikes this listener as rather far-fetched. (Or perhaps I haven’t heard enough accordion music.) Next, the foursome divides into a multiplicity of flowing, contrapuntal lines with shorter, quicker notes in an exciting departure into greater complexity. The ensemble joins together again to sing the second theme only to split up again with a luxurious flurry of ornamentation. The development gives full flight to the contrapuntal lines, bringing them to the foreground against the background of the original syncopated theme sped up as a pulsating accompaniment. A wonderfully dense texture reaches a climax before the return of the opening material and a brilliant coda maximizes the long line of acceleration culminating with an extended sequence of rapid D-major chords, the original syncopated rhythm pushed as fast as the music allows.
With the poignant Andante cantabile, Tchaikovsky created the first of his memorable slow movements. The main theme is based on a folk song that Tchaikovsky reportedly heard a gardener sing while visiting his sister in the Ukraine two years earlier. The music alternates between the folk theme and a contrasting section of Tchaikovsky’s own inspiration that is instantly recognizable as in the vein of his most characteristic style. This lovely little dream has been transcribed, as previously suggested, for various instrumental combinations as a separate, stand-alone piece, including a version Tchaikovsky himself arranged for cello and orchestra. The folksy Scherzo is a vigorous peasant dance, heavy with unison playing, sharp rhythmic accents, strong dynamics, and the stout severity of a minor key. The trio is a curious combination of frivolity and ponderous chromaticism. With both movements, Tchaikovsky displays a nationalistic bent contrary to the view held by other Russian composers who disdained him as too cosmopolitan.
The finale is a combination of sonata and rondo form full of bristling vigor, wonderful quartet textures, unmistakable touches of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical drama, and tinged with a distinctly Russian cast. It is one of the finest chamber music movements he wrote: poised, balanced, and concise.
The first performance took place in Moscow in the year of its composition and was very well received, providing Tchaikovsky with an enthusiastic audience, glowing reviews, and more rubles than he’d received for any previous composition.
Notes by Herbert Glass