Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings

Serenade in C major for String Orchestra, Opus 48

PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, district of Viatka, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg
COMPOSED: Between September 21 and November 4, 1880

WORLD PREMIERE: October 30, 1881. Eduard Nápravník conducted in Saint Petersburg

US PREMIERE: January 24, 1885. Leopold Damrosch conducted at the Academy of Music in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—Although the San Francisco Symphony played the waltz movement as early as January 1937, when Pierre Monteux conducted, the first performances of the complete Serenade were not given until April 1962, under the direction of André Kostelanetz. MOST RECENT—July 2011. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was leader

INSTRUMENTATION: String orchestra

DURATION: About 29 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Let us hear first from Tchaikovsky himself, writing to his friend and patroness Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, on October 22, 1880: “The Overture will be very loud, noisy, but I wrote it without any warm feelings of love and so it will probably be of no artistic worth. But the Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic worth.”

The loveless overture is that inartistic and triumphantly successful piece of claptrap, 1812, which Tchaikovsky had been nagged into writing for an exhibition mounted in honor of the Silver Jubilee of Tsar Alexander II (not a bad fellow as tsars went). The Serenade is the present lovely work, and it is the outcome of sketches made earlier in 1880 for a score that seemed to hover between symphony and string quartet.

THE MUSIC  Restrained though it is—made so in part, of course, by the restricted instrumentation—the serenade is nonetheless full of unmistakable Tchaikovskian melancholy (magically illuminated by George Balanchine in his great ballet Serenade of 1934), and many of the rhetorical devices and the techniques whereby they are achieved are familiar from Tchaikovsky’s big symphonies. The introduction, particularly its dramatic and unexpected reappearance at the end of the first movement, even more its interruption of the Finale, is a good example. Characteristic too, and extremely difficult to bring off in performance, is the end of the introduction, with its repeated and ever-slower cadence preparing the allegro. The link is elegantly made in that the repeated D-E of the melody is carried over to become the bass of the allegro.

The second movement is one of the most gracious of Tchaikovsky’s many waltzes, very happily thought out for string orchestra, never more so than when the melody moves into inner voices while the first violins create an almost balletic embroidery above. The Elegy’s softly dissonant beginning is very beautiful, and throughout, Tchaikovsky’s ear for string sonorities is at its most imaginative. The Finale is marked “Tema russo,” and both the melancholy violin tune in the introduction (a Volga boat-hauling song) and the first dance-like theme of the allegro con spirito are folk material.\

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi)  |  Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

Online: Keeping Score: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: Tchaikovsky, a multi-volume life-and-works set by David Brown (Norton)  |  Tchaikovsky Remembered, edited by Brown (Faber)  |  Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes, edited by Alexander Poznansky (Indiana University Press)  |  Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden (Bantam)

(May 2018)