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8.554048 - TCHAIKOVSKY / DVORAK: Serenades for Strings
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 22

As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the West European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal. Hanslick, in Vienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violin concerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russian element in the last of the six symphonies. In England and America there had been a heartier welcome, and in the latter country he had been received with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that at home. In his diary of the American concert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on the curious habit of American critics, who tended to concentrate their attention on the appearance and posture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51 he was 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 to 1881 and dedicated to the cellist Konstantin Albrecht and general factotum of the Moscow Conservatory. The work started as either a symphony or a string quartet, before it took final shape as a suite for strings, the movements of which established a coherent relationship in key and suggested symphonic structure in their arrangement. It was first performed in Moscow in 1882 and won immediate approval from Jupiter, as the composer's former teacher, Anton Rubinstein, was known. It proved pleasing to critics and public in equal measure and has continued to occupy an important place in string orchestra repertoire.

The first movement, described as in the form of a sonatina, opens with a slower introduction, followed by a first subject in which the composer continues, by dividing the sections of the orchestra, to offer a rich texture, contrasted with the livelier second subject. In the second movement Tchaikovsky reminds us of his particular gifts as a composer of ballet. The waltz melodies bring with them admirably calculated contrasts of key and movement in music that never ceases to be suavely lyrical. This is followed by an Elégie more patently Russian in inspiration, in which the composer's genius for melody is coupled with a remarkably deft handling of string texture and a subtle manipulation of what is fundamentally a simple scale. The Finale in its opening leads gently from the key and mood of the Elégie to a Russian melody, based on a descending scale, a provenance that is emphasised, finally illuminating the origin of the initial bars of the Serenade and the genesis of the whole work.

Dvořák's career won him an international reputation. His visits to England and the resulting choral compositions won him friends in that country and in 1892 he was invited to New York to establish a National Conservatory, in pursuance of the sponsor's aim to cultivate a national American school of composition. At home he had, after Smetana, been largely instrumental in creating a form of Czech music that transcended national boundaries, music that was thoroughly Bohemian in its melodic inspiration and yet firmly within the German classical tradition exemplified by Brahms.

The E major Serenade for string orchestra was written in the first two weeks of May in the year 1873 and performed in Prague on 10th December 1876. It is scored only for strings and has for many years formed a major item in the string orchestra repertoire. The first movement opens with music of delicate charm, breathing something of the spirit of a Schubert quartet, particularly in the middle section of this ternary movement. This is followed by a waltz, with a more restless trio. The scherzo starts with a melody of great liveliness, followed by a second theme of more romantic pretensions and a further melody of considerable beauty, before an extended passage leads back again to the opening melodies. A Larghetto of great tenderness and yearning, recalling in outline the trio of the second movement leads to the finale in which there are references both to the Larghetto and to the first movement. This brings, in conclusion, still more of the spirit of Bohemia, with which the whole Serenade is instilled.


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