The Kennedy Center

Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Thomas May

Tchaikovsky noted that his Serenade for Strings of 1880 was written "from inner conviction." While not as direct an homage to his idol Mozart as his later Orchestral Suite No. 4 ("Mozartiana"), the Serenade recalls a type of music that had been perfected by Mozart during his early Salzburg years: the multi-movement, melody-rich genre that was often used to celebrate special occasions (weddings, graduation ceremonies, and the like).

Tchaikovsky's choice of instrumentation also suggests a Mozartian angle. The Classical serenade typically called for a mix of strings, woodwinds, and possibly brass, but Mozart's best-known serenade, A Little Night Music, was unusually cast for strings alone. (The last of his serenades, written during Mozart's Viennese years, Eine kleine Nachtmusik literally means "a little serenade" in German.) Tchaikovsky similarly confines his ensemble to strings.

The resulting four movements evoke something "between a symphony and a string quartet," he observed-though in a more relaxed vein, without the heavy-duty working out of motifs conventionally associated with those genres.

Tchaikovsky added a separate line for double bass-merely optional in Mozart's score-giving the Serenade a more full-bodied sound. And, in keeping with contemporary Romantic trends, the Serenade is unified through motivic echoes and internal connections between movements.

The first movement unfolds in "lighter" sonatina form (i.e., a typical presentation of themes that lacks a more rigorous development section). Opening with a chord sequence reminiscent of a stirring chorale, the introductory section-reprised at the end-provides the impetus for much of the work's material. In the second movement, Tchaikovsky exchanges the classical poise of a minuet for a lilting waltz (later choreographed by George Balanchine). At the emotional heart of the Serenade is a slow movement titled Elégie, which also begins with a chorale-like passage. A delicately understated pathos emerges in the darker harmonies near the end.

 

Another slow introduction (with muted strings) provides the transition into the finale, which borrows a pair of tunes from Russian folk music. Tchaikovsky's writing for the strings here even mimics native Russian instruments. The lively dance tune that figures among the finale's ideas turns out to be a speeded-up version of the chorale that had opened the work, thus emphasizing the composer's unity of conception.