String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
Composed in 1894, Arensky’s Second String Quartet is another chamber music tribute to Tchaikovsky, following his death. The son of musically inclined parents, Arensky was something of a prodigy, composing songs and piano pieces by the age of nine. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and on graduating went to teach at the Moscow Conservatory, where his students included Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Glière.
In Moscow, Arensky also became a close colleague of Tchaikovsky, whose more cosmopolitan Classicism had greater influence on Arensky than the exotic nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov. Arensky’s Quartet No. 2 was dedicated “to the memory of Tchaikovsky,” and its middle movement is a set of seven variations on a song by Tchaikovsky, “Legend,” from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. The theme is presented clearly by the first violin over plucked accompaniment. Some of Arensky’s imaginative variations take the melancholy tune in unlikely, highly varied directions, including an explosive, pizzicato-driven scherzo-like variation. This movement became very popular as an independent piece in Arensky’s subsequent arrangement for string orchestra.
Arensky was expert in Russian choral and church music (he became director of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg), and a somber psalm tune, instrumentally chanted, frames the first movement of this Quartet. Hints of it also intrude in the brighter, energetically bustling main body of the movement, like moments of grief breaking into happier memories. (Arensky brings this instrumental requiem back as a coda at the end of the second movement.) The psalm tune setting also references the similar Andante funebre movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 (which was also a memorial work, to the composer’s violinist friend Ferdinand Laub).
The Finale opens with further references to Russian psalmody and then quotes the famous folk melody that appears as the Russian theme in the Trio of Beethoven’s Second “Razumovsky” String Quartet (Op. 59, No. 2) and in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. That generates a lively fugato section, which dashes to a quick, brilliant close. It has been suggested that Arensky invoked Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene to imply crowning Tchaikovsky as the emperor of all music.
Arensky chose the unusual scoring of violin, viola, and two cellos for this work to enhance its deep, mournful sonority, particularly in the allusions to Russian liturgical chant. His publisher, understandably concerned about issuing a one-of-a-kind work, persuaded Arensky to also arrange it for the standard string quartet of two violins, viola, and one cello.