Serenade in C Major, op. 48

Composed by

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

1840-1893

Orchestration

violins, violas, cellos, basses


notes by Anthony Suter

I. Pezzo in forma di sonatina
II. Valse
III. Élégie
IV. Finale (Tema russo)

Composed 1880.
First performance: October 30, 1881, St. Petersburg. Eduard Nápravník, conductor.

Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major was written with an ear towards one of his idols, a certain 18th century composer by the name of Mozart. The title and structure of the piece are taken from the serenades of the latter, though this is certainly Tchaikovsky's own particularly 19th century rendering of these older ideas. The work was completed in 1880 and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1881.

Cast in a classical four movement outlay, the work begins with a sonata form movement (Tchaikovsky calls it a "sonatina", i.e. "little sonata", though it is a rather robust form, replete with a slow introduction and full development). The introduction is very important for several reasons, some of which are not apparent until the end of the work. It is a beautiful and rich chorale, scored broadly for the whole of the orchestra. The first theme follows and contains a particularly athletic passage for the cello section, playing scores of fast notes underneath a slower moving passage in the upper strings. The second theme could be described as a perpetual musical motion; it features a line of fast notes climbing, cascading, and descending over and over again with very little respite. These constantly running lines lead elegantly back into the first theme and return once more in classical sonata fashion. Tchaikovsky does have a trick up his sleeve, however. The opening chorale, perhaps somewhat forgotten, returns in full force to end the movement quite cleverly.

The second movement is a gracious waltz that "updates" the requisite dance movement (which in Mozart's time would have been a stately minuet) to a more contemporary dance form (contemporary, that is, for 1880—it begs the question what kind of dance movement a serenade in 2012 would have). In any case, the waltz is almost deceptively complex. The harmonic shifts are numerous and often sudden and always deftly crafted. The texture is somewhat of a departure from the previous movement in that there is a discernible lightness of touch in the waltz. The idea is for the orchestra to sound agile and elegant; it is, after all, a waltz. This is no small task for a composer, and Tchaikovsky's orchestrational prowess certainly is to be admired. It is the perfect foil to the opening of the work and to the following movement's broad, lyrical, and decidedly darker sound.

The third movement, entitled “Elegy”, is certainly the kind of direct, emotional and extremely lyrical writing for which Tchaikovsky is known. The harmony is robust and evocative, always the perfect underpinning for the melancholic melodies heard above. Especially effective is the end of the movement, which “fades out” as the strings move from normally-played notes to harmonics, giving an almost ghostly sheen to the last chord.

The final movement begins with the strings all muted (a mute is a small device that makes the strings sound softer and less “bright”). This slow and subdued section, based on a Russian folk song, stands in stark contrast to the core of the movement, which is a very quick-paced and rollicking finale based on another Russian folk melody—this time a dance tune. This dance tune spins out and gives the orchestra a rather strenuous workout. It is almost as if the piece is continually building and building, seemingly getting faster, until Tchaikovsky channels the inventiveness and unpredictability of his beloved Mozart.

Just as the piece seems to want to end, we hear what appears to be an approach to a final cadence. Instead of the gratifying, final C major chord we are expecting, however, Tchaikovsky flexes his dramatic abilities and brings back music from before—from way before. This is not the muted passage from the beginning of the fourth movement, but rather the chorale from the introduction of the very first movement! No matter how many times I hear this work, this masterful moment still and always renders me breathless for a moment. This quotation from the opening of the work ties the whole piece nicely together, but the Russian master is not exactly finished. All of that fast and driving music based on the Russian dance tune comes back once more, pushing forward (ever faster and faster) to the actual end of the piece, made all the more satisfying for having tricked our ears and letting us enjoy the bittersweet beauty of the very opening of the piece once more.

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