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8.550848 - TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartets, Vol. 2

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): String Quartets Volume 2


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky retains his positing as the most popular of all Russian composers. His music offers obvious charms in its winning melodies and vivid orchestral colours. At the same time his achievement is deeper than this, however tempting it may be to despise what so many people enjoy.

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 studies 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, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official 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 185 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the  new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, 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 breakdown.

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 only 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 remove liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

Tchaikovsky’s sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and has given rise to further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open scandal even in court circles. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.

The third of Tchaikovsky’s quartets, the String Quartet in E flat minor, Opus 30, was completed on 1 March 1876 and first heard a fortnight later in a private performance at the house of Nikolay Rubinstein. On 28 March came a further performance, given at the Moscow Conservatory on the occasion of the visit to Moscow of the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, brother of the Tsar and president of the Russian Music Society. Two public performances were given in the following week and the work was generally welcomed, with the slow movement provoking some who heard it to tears. The quartet was dedicated to the memory of the Czech violinist and composer Ferdinand Laub, who had died a year earlier. A distinguished virtuoso with an international career, Laub had moved to Moscow in 1866 as violin professor and had led the Russian Music Society quartet in the first performances of Tchaikovsky’s earlier quartets.

There is a slow introduction to the first movement, with a moving melody for the first violin, accompanied by plucked notes from the rest of the quartet, before the cello takes up the theme. There is interchange between the instruments in the first theme of the following Allegro moderato and between the first violin and viola in the B flat major second subject. In the turbulent central development much is made of a triplet figure and dotted rhythms, lessening in tension before the return of the principal theme, now in double-stopped notes from the violins and extended by an additional element. The secondary theme return in E flat major, leading to the restoration of the original key and the re-appearance of the material of the introduction to the movement. There is a rapid change of mood for the B flat major scherzo, with a contrasting trio introduced with a viola melody and leading without a break to the return of the scherzo itself. The key of E flat minor is used again for the Andante funebre at the heart of the quartet, with rhetorical comments from the first violin, before the moving descending G flat major theme appears, echoed by the cello. There is a momentary lightening of mood as the principal theme is heard in the key of B major, before the return of the initial key and intensity of mourning. The quartet ends with a rondo, in which the lively principal theme frames contrasting episodes, the second of which returns to be further developed before a sudden pause, plucked notes that suggest an element of the introduction to the quartet and the energetic final section of the movement.

In 1865 Tchaikovsky spent his first summer at the estate of his brother-in-law Lev Davïdov at Kamenka, near Kiev. Here he worked on a Russian translation of a recently published French manual on orchestration and composed an Overture and the String Quartet Movement in B flat major. He returned to his studies at the Conservatory in St Petersburg in September and the movement was performed by a student quartet in November, as Tchaikovsky prepared for his final examination, a setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The classical movement opens with a slow introduction, which returns in conclusion. The main body of the movement makes use of a Ukrainian folk-song that he had heard at Kamenka, a melody of familiar contour which is duly developed, to return in recapitulation. In 1867 Tchaikovsky used the theme for his piano Scherzo à la Russe, Opus 1, No. 1.

The four movements here included were written in the years of 1863 and 1864. In the former year Tchaikovsky had resigned from the Ministry of Justice, although he still had the possibility of returning to work there. His work at the Conservatory was going well and his gifts had been recognised by Anton Rubinstein, who set him task after task. At the same time he was obliged to support himself, as far as he could, by giving lessons. Something of Rubinstein’s enthusiasm for his pupil can be understood from the short pieces Tchaikovsky was writing at the time, although he won less approval for some of his more extended work.

Keith Anderson

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