String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
While Tchaikovsky was influenced by Glinka, Anton Arensky was greatly influenced by Tchaikovsky. Arensky started studying piano with his mother, then attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. Later he was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Moscow Conservatory and taught Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Glière. While in Moscow, Arensky met his hero Tchaikovsky, who became his mentor and friend.
The Quartet No. 2 comes from late in Arensky’s short life (he died from tuberculosis at age 45 after a long struggle with alcoholism). It was dedicated “To the memory of Tchaikovsky” and was written in 1894, soon after the great composer’s death. Arensky’s decision to write for a quartet with two cellos instead of two violins was a brilliant one, and the resulting darker tone of the quartet makes sense given its elegiac inspiration.
The first movement opens and closes with a muted psalm theme taken from ancient Russian church music, which is also reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s third string quartet.
The second movement is a theme and variations and bears the title “Based on a theme by Tchaikovsky” (from Tchaikovsky’s 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54). The theme itself is solemn and restrained; the seven variations are by turn intense, lyrical, light, and dark in mood. The variations veer far from the original theme at times and end on a reflective elegy that echoes the beginning of the movement.
The third movement begins slowly, picking up from the second movement’s end. It then changes character, moving on to a bright and lively fugue, before returning to a soft and thoughtful section that lasts for only a moment, erupting into a sprint to end the Quartet.
— Jessie Rothwell is a writer, musician, and piano teacher who lives in Washington, D.C.