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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartets, Vol. 1
Arguably the greatest 19th-century Russian composer, for whose music the public appears to have an insatiable appetite, Tchaikovsky had a natural gift for beautiful and deeply expressive melodies which, in his most successful works, was allied to a hoard-won and often original compositional technique. Although the Russian public regarded chamber music as trivial, Tchaikovsky produced three fine string quartets. Indeed his first quartet contains one of his most popular pieces, the Andante cantabile, which has become well-known both in its original form and in an orchestral arrangement.
By David Nice
BBC Music Magazine
By Jeffrey Joseph
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): String Quartets Volume 1
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.
For the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Opus 11, Tchaikovsky made use of a folk-song, Sidel Vanya, that he had noted down during a visit in 1869 to his sister and brother-in-law at Kamenka in the Ukraine. The popularity of this Andante cantabile later worried him, since it seemed that this was all people wanted to hear of his music in one or other of the many transcriptions that arose. The quartet itself was written in 1871 for performance by colleagues at the Moscow Conservatory at the opening of a concert of his works on 28 March at which Turgenev was present. The work was dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s friend, the botanist Sergey Alexandrovich Rachinsky. The classical first movement opens with a gently lyrical first subject that has been compared to the writing of Schubert. A livelier transition leads to a second subject, marked largamente e cantabile. The exposition, which is repeated, ends in greater tension, before the varied development, with its interplay between the instruments. The first subject returns, accompanied by decorative comment from the first violin, followed by the secondary theme and an exciting coda. The familiar B flat slow movement, which brought tears to the eyes of Tolstoy when he first heard it, is entrusted to muted instruments, while the D flat major theme that forms the central section is accompanied by the plucked notes of the cello in a repeated pattern. The Scherzo, in D minor, is marked by its asymmetrical accentuation and dynamic contrasts, framing a B flat major Trio that starts over a repeated cello figure. The original key is restored for the the Finale, which continues to explore the classical form, as in the earlier movements, the principal theme returning in more emphatic form before the introduction of a secondary theme in B flat major, first given the viola. The repeated exposition ends with a coda that, the first time, shifts a semitone to the appropriate key, but in its second version remains in a remoter key. The material is imaginatively and idiomatically explored before the final recapitulation, the whole work a display of Tchaikovsky’s early command of the idiom of quartet-writing.
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Opus 22, was completed in 1874 and dedicated to Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, President of the Russian Musical Society. Like its predecessor, it was written very quickly and was first heard in a private evening recital at the house of Nikolay Rubinstein in February, to the critical disapproval of Anton Rubinstein. After some revision, the first public performance was given in Moscow on 22 March. As in Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet, there is an intense chromatic slow introduction to the first movement. The first violin then leads the way to the Moderato assai, classical in its tripartite form, but adventurous in harmony and in its increased use of counterpoint. The movement finds ultimate peace in the key of F major, in a hushed conclusion. The D flat major Scherzo, now placed second, proposes an asymmetrical rhythm. The contrasting trio section, in A major, has a theme first stated on the G string of the first violin, later repeated with contrapuntal interest provided by the second violin. The slow movement, in F minor, is tender and lyrical. At the heart of the movement is a more Russian passage, starting in E major, but moving through other keys, before the return of the opening material. The energetic final rondo, in a clear F major, brings contrasting episodes, with a fugal treatment of the principal theme and a grandiose return to the secondary theme, followed b a rapid coda and an empathic conclusion.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartets, Vol. 1