Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The String Serenade and the “1812” Overture were composed 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 first movement, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, is bookended by a chorale marked Andante non troppo. 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,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “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.”
Tchaikovsky’s waltz can trace its origins back to the minuets of Mozart. It seems sensible that Tchaikovsky would integrate the waltz, the most amorous of 19th-century dances, into his symphonies and the String Serenade. Not surprisingly, this particular Valse is more reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s own balletic waltzes than those of the Johann Strausses.
The third movement, Elegia, opens with another choralelike passage, here, one which 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 Andante introduction 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 final gesture, provide an arching sense of unity which spans the entire work.
— David Fick