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Chamber music was only a tiny portion of Tchaikovsky's total output: three string quartets, a piano trio, a string sextet, and three pieces for violin and piano. For the most part these smaller works are simply a distillation of the unrestrained emotiveness of his larger works, but the First String Quartet in D major, Op. 11, is different altogether. In it Tchaikovsky gives us textbook Classical string quartet writing: taut, noble, and tasteful.
The First Quartet was written with the most pragmatic of intentions: to make money. In 1871, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and running low on cash, Tchaikovsky decided at the urging of his friend Nikolay Rubinstein (brother of Tchaikovky's former teacher, Anton, and founder of the Moscow Conservatory) to present a concert of his own chamber music (chamber music being cheaper to present than a full orchestra). Remarkably, the Quartet was written on the fly just weeks before the concert.
The first movement, Moderato e semplice, places the gently rocking first theme in a dignified classical setting, with rich harmonies and intense counterpoint that celebrate the sense of unity found in the string quartet sound.
The second movement takes its first theme from a Ukrainian folk song, "Vanya sat on the sofa," about a besotted and inebriated peasant daydreaming about his love. The movement was an immediate hit and has since become renowned as one of music's sentimental, romantic favorites. Still, there is something to be said for laying out a simple, lovely tune: Six years later, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary after a performance of the Quartet at the Moscow Conservatory: "Never in my life have I felt so flattered and proud of my creative ability as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting next to me, heard my andante with tears coursing down his cheeks." And in 1888, in a review of an all-Tchaikovsky program at the Lisztverein in Leipzig, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik called the andante "a slumbering lily in the valley." The jaunty syncopated theme and dark, minor-key flavor of the Scherzo movement make it alternately mysterious and festive, while the masculine, forthright sonata-rondo Finale contains the lyricism, simple harmonies, and syncopated rhythms that characterize the entire work.
-- Meg Ryan is the Philharmonic's Publications Assistant. She has also written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Electronic Musician, among other publications.