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All three of Tchaikovsky’s string quartets date from his first decade in Moscow, before his disastrous marriage, the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, and the creation of most of his best-known music. The Second Quartet was composed during Christmastime in December 1873 and completed in January 1874. It had a private performance in the apartment of Nikolai Rubinstein shortly after it was composed; its public premiere took place in Moscow in March.

“I consider it one of my best compositions,” the composer wrote to his brother Modest later that year, after its St. Petersburg premiere. “None has flowed out of me so easily and simply. I wrote it almost in one sitting.” He wrote about it later with equal affection and regard to his brother Anatoly, his patron Nadezhda von Meck, and to colleagues such as Rimsky-Korsakov.

Tchaikovsky at this time – as throughout his career – generally accepted Classical forms with enthusiasm, but the four standard movements of a Classical string quartet find quite original fulfillment here. Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s idol, but Beethoven seems to be the inspiration in this work. It opens with a dissonant crunch, launching a chromatic introduction that is part fugato, part recitative for the first violin. Even when the main Moderato assai body arrives, it comes without the tonic and is rhythmically restless and off-beat. There is a wildness to this music that disrupts its Classical boundaries.

The Scherzo is also awry, but then scherzos are historically a place for metrical games. The contrast with the gently dancing middle Trio section is sharp – literally, as the key goes from D-flat (five flats) to A (three sharps). Tchaikovsky does something similar with his intense slow movement, another A-B-A form, again with unsettled harmonies and rhythms. The Finale is structurally relatively pristine but manifested with exuberant, almost orchestral drive.

Modest Tchaikovsky linked the Christmastide composition of this work to svyatki, the Russian 12 days of Christmas tradition that mixes costumed trick-or-treating with tipsy wassailing and carol singing. Tchaikovsky scholar Roland John Wiley suggests that the unstable characteristics and extravagant gestures of the String Quartet No. 2 may be metaphors for this riotous celebration. “If there is something of Russian Christmas about this music, it would help explain why the Second [Quartet] was so well received in Russia and so disregarded elsewhere, and why Tchaikovsky himself esteemed it so.”

-John Henken