Pezzo in forma di Sonatina (Andante non troppo – Allegro moderato)
Moderato, tempo di Valse
Elegy (Larghetto elegiaco)
Finale, tema russo (Andante – Allegro con spirito)
In late 1880, as often when taking some time off, Tchaikovsky started to feel restless – sure sign that something was brewing, though for a while he wasn’t sure whether it would be a symphony or string quartet; he worked quickly though, and a very few weeks later wrote, in October, to his patron Madame von Meck:
You can imagine, dear friend, that recently my muse has been very benevolent when I tell you I have written two works very rapidly: a Festival Overture for the Exhibition and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth of 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.
The overture is of course the ‘1812’, noisier with every passing year, though the Serenade, too, should be performed, according to Tchaikovsky, with as large a band of strings as practicable. Sending it to his publisher he noted, ‘I love this Serenade terribly, and fervently hope that it might soon see the light of day.’ It did, of course, and after its first performance in St Petersburg in October 1881 it rapidly made its way across Russia to western Europe and the USA.
The Serenade is in the classical four-movement design.
The first is bookended by a striking, solemn and rich slow section, firmly in C major yet very expressive. Like so many of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, the theme is essentially a slightly modified scale. It is stated first in the first violins, then with minor-ish harmony by the cellos and basses, then again in a different combination and finally, an octave lower than the start, it stated softly and slightly fragmented. The movement is ‘in the form of a sonatina’ so Tchaikovsky gives the classical contrast between a first theme (in C), based on a sighing motif, and second theme (in G) that glitters with repeated semiquavers, and plays tricks with the rhythm, accenting off-beats to create the passing effect of a different time-signature.
The Waltz that follows has a slightly Italian sound to it (Tchaikovsky was a master of disguise, especially in the ballets) especially in the motif periodically sounded by just the violins, where everyone gets a share of melody and frenetic accompaniment. The Elegy is pure Tchaikovsky, with its first, rising scale-based melody and passage of song accompanied by pizzicato, to suggest, maybe, guitars. Even the D major music that opens and closes the movement is sombre, but the harmony becomes increasingly chromatic and passionate.
There are two Russian folksongs (which Tchaikovsky had previous arranged for piano) that act as themes in the last movement: ‘On the Green Meadow’ in the slow, muted introduction and ‘Under the Green Apple Tree’, the first theme of the allegro. After a thrilling development, the music briefly returns to the work’s opening gesture, before a tremendous release of energy in the final pages.