A work of tremendous immediate appeal, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings could equally well be heard on deeper listening as an artistic credo of sorts. Composed simultaneously with the 1812 Overture, the Serenade, by contrast to the bombast of 1812, represents an intent focus on craft as a vehicle for personal expression.
The private anguish Tchaikovsky wrestled with throughout his life has been well documented, centering primarily on his sexuality and social relationships. Add to these his cultural orientation as a less palpable, but no less pointedly felt, source of angst. Tchaikovsky was Russian, and held a fervent love for his homeland. He likewise grew up with a deep affinity with French culture: his mother, with whom he was close, was an amateur pianist and singer of French descent; one anecdote relates how, as a child, Tchaikovsky would kiss Russia on a map of Europe, then spit on the rest of the continent—but with his hand covering France.
The Russian-Western dichotomy would become more pronounced in his artistic maturity. Among the Russian composers of his generation, Tchaikovsky was the most firmly rooted in the Western Classical tradition, thus aesthetically distanced from his self-trained compatriots known as the Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov), who strived to create a distinctly Russian school of music. He was, in other words, not as Russian as the Russians; nor did he quite fit among the German Romantics (Brahms, et al.).
In the Serenade for Strings, Tchaikovsky seems to work out his cultural identity before our very ears. The Serenade demonstrates Western technique styled after Mozart—Tchaikovsky’s musical idol—and Beethoven. It is, surmises musicologist Roland John Wiley, “as closely knit a motivic work as Tchaikovsky ever wrote.” The opening Pezzo in forma di Sonatina— an overt homage to Mozart in both form and character—begins with a descending melodic figure that unifies much of the work. The ascending scales that follow become the theme of the fetching second movement Walzer, and reappear in the introductory measures of the poignant Élégie.
The Serenade’s rollicking Finale is based on what Tchaikovsky identifies as a Tema Russo, yet derives from the motif that opens the Mozartian Pezzo in forma di Sonatina. Lest there be any doubt, the Russian theme slows to a verbatim reprise of the previous melody before the Serenade’s climactic end. Wiley interprets the Serenade as “an essay in Western/Russian rapprochement which favors Russian at the end.” It is also, more importantly, a sheer triumphant work. Tchaikovsky’s catharsis is our gain.
Patrick Castillo ©2015