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8.550404 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Serenade for Strings / Souvenir de Florence (Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Entremont)
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice.. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability, and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not on I y the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The recently revealed version of the circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now widely accepted. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally believed, in spite of elements of improbability.
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 Elegie 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 w hat is fundamentally a simple scale. The Finale in its opening leads gently from the key and mood of the Elegie 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.
Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty was given its first performance in January 1890 for Florence, meeting no great success. The composer left Russia in the same month, in order to work on his new Pushkin opera The Queen of Spades, for which his brother Modest had prepared the libretto. Within 44 days the sketches were finished and accompanied by Modest's servant Nazar he set out for Rome. By May he was in Russia once more and at the house he rented at Frolovskoye completed the score of the opera and set to work on his string sextet, progress on which he announced in various letters to Modest, showing particular pleasure in the final fugue. He later expressed much less satisfaction, with his usual diffidence regarding the work as evidence of his declining powers.
The sextet, with the title Souvenir de Florence, descriptive of its thematic origins, was first performed in November 1890 and was revised by the composer at the close of the following year. The first of the four movements is in rondo form, followed by a ternary form Andante. The song-form third movement, with its Trio, leads to a final sonata-form movement. Tchaikovsky experienced some difficulty at first in dealing with the form of the sextet, with its two violins, two violas and two cellos in parts of balanced importance. The sextet forms, however, a useful addition to string orchestra repertoire, allowing still further strength to the lyricism of the work, contained within broadly classical outlines.
Vienna Chamber Orchestra
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