Serenade for Strings

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Few composers have possessed the ability to reflect emotions within their music as well as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Born in a small Russian village, Tchaikovsky began music lessons at an early age. His talent soon became apparent. His parents, however, hoped for a more stable profession for their son and so he trained for a career in public service. The pull of music was too great, however, and Tchaikovsky ended up at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Upon graduation, he accepted a job at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught composition. A decade later, Tchaikovsky received an offer of sponsorship from the wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, under the strange condition that the two never meet in person. Von Meck’s patronage allowed the musician to spend his time composing without interruption. The two corresponded regularly, and she became a primary means not only for financial, but also for emotional support.

Serenade for Strings was composed one summer when Tchaikovsky was in the Ukraine. While many of his works exhibit an ability to emote feelings, the serenade seems to encapsulate multiple sentiments, sometimes at the same time. Like Tower’s Fanfare and Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Winds, Tchaikovsky honored an important predecessor with his composition. In a letter to von Meck he revealed that the first movement was “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.” Tchaikovsky aptly captures the balance and charm of Mozart’s chamber settings, but also infuses the four-movement composition with the lush, heart-rending harmonies that are his trademark. The composer also combines a larger classical structure with elements of the nineteenth-century Viennese waltz, a moving elegy, and a finale that utilizes Russian folk themes, bringing together disparate worlds and channeling both solemnity and joy into one perfect package.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, two of his solo concertos, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake are surely mainstays of the traditional and popular symphonic repertoire, whose inimitable melodies no doubt most come to mind to music lovers everywhere.  To this must be added the American contemporary mania for his ballet, The Nutcracker, at Christmastime and the potboiler 1812 Overture on Independence Day.  Notwithstanding the depth and breadth of his large oeuvre — including chamber music, songs, operas, other overtures, ballets, and concertos, solo piano works, and more — his evergreen Serenade for Strings, too, takes a secure place with the aforementioned popular audience favorites.  It’s an eternal favorite, and is perhaps best known for its use by the great choreographer George Balanchine in his ballet, Serenade (1934).

Tchaikovsky’s first mature compositions stem from 1867, with his initial widespread recognition coming with Romeo and Juliet in 1869.  The 1870s were years of great fecundity, and saw such masterpieces as the ballet Swan Lake, the first piano concerto and his violin concerto, Eugene Onegin, and his fourth symphony.  And more. 

After all of this success, in the Fall of 1880 he started sketching out rough designs for a multi-movement work—in his mind not clearly a string quartet or a symphony—and working quickly he soon finished what had become a serenade for string orchestra.  

In a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote that he “. . . composed from an innate impulse; that is something which arises from having freedom to think, and is not devoid of true worth.”  Cast in four movements, it received its première later that fall at the Moscow Conservatory, in a private performance as a surprise for the visiting composer.  It soon enjoyed widespread performance, making its way to New York by 1885. The composer himself conducted it at a performance in Baltimore in 1891.  Its popularity and reputation have remained ensconced in the repertoire.

The first of its four movements, Pezzo in forma di sonatina, was conceived as a conscious reflection of the style of Mozart in the form of a classical sonatina, including a slow introduction.  Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer, and he penned this pastiche in his honor.  The Serenade may be scored for strings alone, but the introductory andante begins with a muscular, powerful mien, with rich, full scoring for the strings, including double stops galore.  Tchaikovsky loved a big, full string sound, and in this case averred that the more the better!  The simple opening motif is repeated several times, each in a nuanced different scoring in the best Tchaikovsky manner, before the thirty-seven bars come to a pianissimo end.

The fast movement proper ensues immediately, and the first theme, while not a waltz per se, displays the familiar Tchaikovsky mastery of its pulsing compound meter.  After some forays into darker keys, the second theme (in G Major) clearly is arrived at, and in this case is a scampering affair in fast, repeated notes.   As is often common in a sonatina, there is no development and after the second theme has had its due, the first theme returns, followed by the second theme, this time in the textbook main key.  An abbreviated return of the opening andante concludes the work, but notice the sly chromatic allusion to darker matters just before the end.

The second movement is a charming little waltz, a dance style in which Tchaikovsky was sans pareil.   The simple tune, mostly just a scale, shows how much the composer could do with the simplest of materials—not unlike a great chef.  After the usual diversion in the middle of the movement, the main theme returns and cadences gently.  Throughout, the composer makes frequent and enchanting use of the little hesitations and stop times so typical of the graceful choreography of the waltz.

Elégie is perhaps the most substantive of the four movements, and opens with more of Tchaikovsky’s adroit use of simple scales as melodic material.  Its lush, close voicing, and somewhat ambiguous tonality gives it a rather antique aura.  It soon seems to settle on the relative minor key, but then quickly moves to D Major for the following animato section.  There, the winsome tune (again, a simple scale) is nothing so much as an implied vocal “serenade” with triplet pizzicatos in the rest of the orchestra evoking a “singer’s” guitar accompaniment.  Various other sections take up the tune in artful variations, with beguiling counterpoint, until a little cadenza-like passage in the first violins takes us to the recap of the slow introduction.  But Tchaikovsky is not finished yet.  In a manner so familiar from his symphonies, he extends the passage, and introduces his familiar “throbbing” cross-rhythms over a sustained bass.  Then, everyone ascends into the acoustic stratosphere to end as high and soft as possible on harmonics.

The last movement has a rather slow introduction, too, starting in the high, soft vein as the previous ending—this time with mutes.  After some brief musical musing in a rather subdued mood, the “spirited” movement proper begins. Both slow introduction and the following allegro are based upon Russian traditional melodies. The first fast tune is a rather simple little one, whose dance-like character is worked through thoroughly before yielding to the second idea — a somewhat more lyrical one.  Tchaikovsky wrings a lot out of these two little melodies, adding some gracious countermelodies along the way, before a return to the rich, full slow introduction to the first movement rounds the whole thing off.  After which a scampering coda based on the first Russian tune races to the end, with the usual Tchaikovsky mastery of a scintillating dash to the conclusion. 

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic at the Lincoln Center, February 2022.

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