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Tchaikovsky’s output in the realm of chamber music was quite small, consisting of only three string quartets, a string sextet, and a piano trio. The third quartet, completed in 1876, was written in memory of his friend and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, violinist Ferdinand Laub. Laub had led the premiere performances of the composer’s first two quartets. In true Romantic style, the work explores a vast array of emotions within the traditional four-movement framework.
The opening movement is by far the longest and most complex, with a melancholy slow introduction that leads to a more agitated Allegro moderato. Here the music takes on the character of a valse triste, slowly revealing a more dramatic, desperate expression of grief and building to several huge climaxes before returning to the Andante sostenuto music of the opening.
The second movement is a scherzo in traditional ABA form, but written in duple rather than triple meter. It is a brief respite from the emotionally charged movements which surround it. The opening dance-like music has the character of a brisk polka (Laub was Czech, which may account for this), while the central trio section briefly provides the contrasting sounds of a gentle lullaby before the polka music returns.
The third movement, a funeral march, is the emotional heart of the quartet, and audiences were said to be in tears after hearing this movement during the work’s first performances. It opens with the familiar funereal dotted rhythms, but also has sections which correspond to an actual funeral service, with alternations between somber chorales and the priest’s intoning (the latter heard as a solo on B-flat for the second violin). The first violin dominates the movement (no doubt a gesture to Laub) with soaring melodies strikingly reminiscent of Swan Lake,M which the composer set aside during work on the quartet. In the final bars the music ascends to the stratosphere, as we imagine Laub’s soul being transported to the heavenly realm.
The finale, in simple rondo form, adopts a tone of joy and firm resolve, a great relief after the emotional upheavals of the preceding movements. The polka element returns, and Tchaikovsky provides a vigorous and optimistic ending in celebration of life.
This quartet, which had so moved audiences during its initial performances, was played as a tribute to Tchaikovsky himself at numerous memorial concerts held after his death seventeen years later.
Pianist Erik Entwistle is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is preparing a dissertation on "Martinu in Paris."