Writer's Choice: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 - Tchaikovsky's Finest Work
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Writer's Choice: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 - Tchaikovsky's Finest Work

History and analysis of Tchaikovsky's string orchestra masterpiece, the Serenade, Op. 48.

Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48

During the autumn of 1880, Tchaikovsky composed two of his most popular and enduring works: the Serenade for Strings, written between September 21 and November 4; and the 1812 Overture, written between October 12 and November 19. Given the popularity that both of these works have attained in the concert stage, it is interesting to note that the two works could not have been farther apart when it came to the composer's affection toward each; while he loved the former, he loathed the latter. The 1812 Overture was written for the forthcoming All-Russian Art and Industrial Exhibition. It was his friend, former teacher and mentor, Nicolai Rubinstein, who suggested that Tchaikovsky should compose either an overture for the opening of the exhibition, a work to celebrate Tsar Alexander II's silver jubilee or a cantata to mark the opening of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Although he ended up combining two of Rubinstein's suggestions, it is a well known fact that Tchaikovsky was less than enthusiastic about this particular project.  He could not be inspired by a "high-ranking person (who has always been antipathetic to me)," or a cathedral he did not like, nor was he inclined to compose "music destined for the glorification of [an event which] delights me not at all."

Nikolai Kuznetzov's Tchaikovsky, 1893.

On the other hand, the Serenade was a labor of love, growing out of his own inner impulse.  Among his own works, it became one of the closest to his heart. In a letter to his friend and publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky wrote: "Whether because it is my latest child or because it really is not bad, I am terribly in love with this Serenade." Comparing his two works-in-progress, in October 1880, the composer wrote to his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck: "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."

Indeed, the "artistic qualities" of the work were perceived from the very first time it was heard in public. The Serenade received its premiere performance in St. Petersburg, under the direction of Eduard Nápravník on October 30, 1881, when it was an instant success. Rubinstein - who six years earlier had devastated the composer when summarily pronouncing that the First Piano Concerto was "ill-composed" and "unperformable" - had nothing but praise for the work, declaring it "Tchaikovsky's best piece"; he also enthusiastically told Jurgenson: "You can congratulate yourself on the publication of this opus." Since then the Serenade has been continually acclaimed for its poise and lyric beauty.

In his conception of the Serenade, Tchaikovsky envisioned a work which falls somewhere between a symphony and a string quintet. The work is as personal as any of the composer's symphonies and as intimate as his chamber music. In it, Tchaikovsky also pays tribute to his musical idol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who composed more than a dozen Serenades of various proportions and instrumentation.

The first movement, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, features a lyrical introduction marked Andante non troppo. The Allegro moderato that follows constitutes the main section of this movement; it is cast in classic sonata form and presents a passionate first theme and a second theme of a more playful nature. After the recapitulation of these themes, the movement concludes with a reprise of the introductory material, this time treated with more energy and animation. The composer wrote to Mme. von Meck, "The first movement is my homage to Mozart. 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."

The Valse second movement is marked Moderato. Among the many waltzes by Tchaikovsky, this is certainly one of the most festive and musically interesting. The richness and variety of ideas that are manifest within the limitations of the string ensemble are remarkable. It is significant to note that there are no repeats; all material is written out freshly, and seemingly recurrent sections have in fact been subtly altered.

The third movement, Élégie, is built upon a simple A-B-A structure. The outer, framing sections have a darker mood that is lightened somewhat in the middle section. This movement is musically similar to - and in fact, anticipates - the second movement of Tchaikovsky's own Pathétique Symphony. For the return to the opening material, the entire orchestra is muted to produce a delicately veiled tone. In the coda, the proceedings climb resolutely up to serene harmonies as the dynamics gradually reach their softest point of expression (marked "pppp").

The Finale begins with an Andante introduction based on a Russian folk tune, a Volga "hauling song." This introduction aptly serves as a bridge between the somber third movement and the Allegro con spirito main section of the Finale. The first theme of the main section is melodically similar to the slow introduction to the first movement. The second theme is presented by the cellos playing cantabile while the violins produce a pizzicato accompaniment. The recapitulation is interrupted by a restatement of the introduction to the first movement, after which, a coda based on thematic material from the Finale concludes the work.

Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is Tchaikovsky's original 1874 oil on canvas of his stage design for "Oprichnik."

*  The embedded files below are a live recorded performance from the Verbier Festival in 2008.  The orchestra here does a fine job, with beautiful ensemble playing and an energetic performance.  Vengerov, however, in his full-body wretch, twisting and dancing around, whistling and humming all the way through, must be ignored.  He doesn't take anything away from the players, but in this case, he's no asset.  This is the best example I could find on YouTube, but I'd recommend purchasing a recording.  There are several good recordings with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  These are only examples.  Please support working artlsts and purchase music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (5)

I just love this piece, swoon!

No votes left, tweeted, dig and stumbled.

Thanks to both of you.

I love this piece. The article and the performance. I saw the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields once. I was very fortunate to get some free tickets! That portrait by the way is so beautiful - I will have to look up the artist as I am not familiar with him.

Thank you, Judith. I always found the painting rather sad because it was painted in the last year of Tchaikovsky's life. But the original (or a good print) is very expressive, revealing the whole of his experiences As for the ASMinF, anything they've recorded is usually a sure bet.