TCHAIKOVSKY / DVORAK: Serenades for Strings
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Pyotr Il'yichTchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings,Op. 48
Serenade for Strings,Op. 22
As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the WestEuropean or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacherAnton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossiblyaggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, whileBalakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his ownideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. Hiswork, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked theircompositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal. Hanslick, inVienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violinconcerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russianelement in the last of the six symphonies. In England and America there hadbeen a heartier welcome, and in the latter country he had been received with anenthusiasm that exceeded even that at home. In his diary of the Americanconcert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on the curious habit of Americancritics, who tended to concentrate their attention on the appearance andposture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51 hewas described in the American press as "a tall, gray, interesting man,well on to sixty".
The Serenade for Strings was written in the winter of 1880 to1881 and dedicated to the cellist Konstantin Albrecht and general factotum ofthe Moscow Conservatory. The work started as either a symphony or a stringquartet, before it took final shape as a suite for strings, the movements ofwhich established a coherent relationship in key and suggested symphonic structurein their arrangement. It was first performed in Moscow in 1882 and wonimmediate approval from Jupiter, as the composer's former teacher, AntonRubinstein, was known. It proved pleasing to critics and public in equalmeasure and has continued to occupy an important place in string orchestrarepertoire.
The first movement, described as in the form of a sonatina, opens with aslower introduction, followed by a first subject in which the composercontinues, by dividing the sections of the orchestra, to offer a rich texture,contrasted with the livelier second subject. In the second movement Tchaikovskyreminds us of his particular gifts as a composer of ballet. The waltz melodiesbring with them admirably calculated contrasts of key and movement in music thatnever ceases to be suavely lyrical. This is followed by an Elegie morepatently Russian in inspiration, in which the composer's genius for melody iscoupled with a remarkably deft handling of string texture and a subtlemanipulation of what is fundamentally a simple scale. The Finale in itsopening leads gently from the key and mood of the Elegie to a Russianmelody, based on a descending scale, a provenance that is emphasised, finallyilluminating the origin of the initial bars of the Serenade and the genesisof the whole work.
Dvořak's career won him an international reputation. His visits toEngland and the resulting choral compositions won him friends in that countryand in 1892 he was invited to New York to establish a National Conservatory, inpursuance of the sponsor's aim to cultivate a national American school ofcomposition. At home he had, after Smetana, been largely instrumental increating a form of Czech music that transcended national boundaries, music thatwas thoroughly Bohemian in its melodic inspiration and yet firmly within theGerman classical tradition exemplified by Brahms.
The E major Serenade for string orchestra was written in thefirst two weeks of May in the year 1873 and performed in Prague on 10thDecember 1876. It is scored only for strings and has for many years formed amajor item in the string orchestra repertoire. The first movement opens withmusic of delicate charm, breathing something of the spirit of a Schubertquartet, particularly in the middle section of this ternary movement. This isfollowed by a waltz, with a more restless trio. The scherzo starts with amelody of great liveliness, followed by a second theme of more romanticpretensions and a further melody of considerable beauty, before an extendedpassage leads back again to the opening melodies. A Larghetto of greattenderness and yearning, recalling in outline the trio of the second movementleads to the finale in which there are references both to the Larghetto and tothe first movement. This brings, in conclusion, still more of the spirit ofBohemia, with which the whole Serenade is instilled.