Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

By the fall of 1880, when the 40-year-old Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings, he was an internationally celebrated composer with symphonies, concertos, operas, and a great variety of other pieces to his credit. He was at work on two compositions that could hardly have been more different: the soothing Serenade and the showy “1812 Overture,” now beloved at Fourth of July concerts and other ceremonial occasions. Tchaikovsky wrote to his generous patron, Nadezhda von Meck, about the projects: “You can imagine, dear friend, that recently my muse has been benevolent, when I tell you I have written two long works very rapidly: a Festival Overture for the Exhibition [of Industry and the Arts to be held in Moscow] and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it, and venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.”

Tchaikovsky was intensely self-critical, but the Serenade remained close to his heart. The first performance was a surprise mounted by students at the Moscow Conservatory, with the official premiere the following year in St. Petersburg. The second movement waltz was immediately encored and is sometimes performed independently. His mentor, Anton Rubinstein, who was often grudging in his support, said he thought it “was Tchaikovsky’s very best piece.” Tchaikovsky conducted the work across Europe, including in Prague, Paris, London, Geneva, and Berlin, as well as several times during his trip to America in 1891.

When he began sketching the piece in September 1880 Tchaikovsky thought it might be a symphony or string quartet, but diverted the project to a string serenade. A musical dictionary from 1732 defined a “serenade” as “an evening piece; because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights.” Initially such music was for entertainment, usually written for aristocrats, and meant to divert (hence the related genre of the “divertimento”). Mozart composed the most famous serenades of the 18th century, some for wind instruments, others for strings, like the famous Serenade in G Major, subtitled “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music). Tchaikovsky revered Mozart above all other composers and wrote pieces inspired by his music. He told Madame von Meck that the first movement of the Serenade was his “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.”

After a noble chorale-like introduction (Andante non troppo), the rest of the movement is marked “Pezzo in forma di sonatina” (Piece in the form of a sonatina) in a faster tempo (Allegro moderato) with a waltz-like first theme. The following movement is explicitly a waltz (Moderato: Tempo di Valse), reminding us of the dance impetus for so much of Tchaikovsky’s music, not limited to his great ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. The meditative Élégie (Larghetto elegiaco) unfolds in several sections. For the lively finale (Tema Russo) Tchaikovsky calls upon two Russian folk tunes that he had included in his earlier collection of arrangements, Fifty Russian Folk Songs (1869). The slow introduction uses “On the Green Meadow,” while the following Allegro con spirito uses “Under the Green Apple Tree.” Tchaikovsky concludes by bringing back a transformed version of the introduction that started the first movement, thus rounding out the entire composition.