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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Serenade No. 1 / TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for Strings
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Serenade No. I in D Major, Op. II
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician, a double bass
player, and his mother a seamstress some seventeen years older than her husband.
The family was poor, and as a boy Brahms earned money by playing the piano in
dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent
brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later
dedicated his B Flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned
nothing from him.
The greater part of Brahms's career was to be spent in Vienna, where he
finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of
Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a
pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a
pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than
accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength,
originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to
the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional
forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word.
Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms's First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth.
Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and gruff
tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement
unquestioned, except by the fanatical supporters of Wagner.
The Serenade in D major, Opus 11, was written during the months early
in his career Brahms spent at the court of Detmold, its period of composition
overlapping with that of the Serenade in A major. Like its companion it
was published in 1860, the year of its first performance in Hanover, although it
seems that it had at least been played through in Detmold in its original forms
as an octet by players from the orchestra, led by the violinist Karl Bargheer.
Clara Schumann, already an influential advocate of Brahms insisted that the Serenade
should be played at a benefit concert in Vienna in 1860, if she was to take
part, and urged the two Serenades on other influential conductors.
In six movements, largely following earlier tradition, the Serenade owes
something to Brahms's study of classical models. The surviving autograph
suggests that the work was conceived as a symphony-serenade, and in length, at
least, it is ambitious. It starts in a happy pastoral mood, to which a more
ominous strain is added, in the tones of Beethoven, before becoming recognisably
and unequivocally Brahms. The lilting first Scherzo, a contrast to the
substantial opening Allegro, touches a rustic mood in its section, and is
followed by a slow movement of contour, in which that most characteristic of all
instruments used by Brahms, the French horn, has its due prominence - otherwise
classical in its scoring, the Serenade calls for four French horns rather
than the two horns of the earlier period. The first Minuet lightens the
tranquil mood with a moment of peasant jollity, delicately scored, before the
intervention of a more poignant element, against the continuing ostinato
accompaniment. The French horn introduces the second Scherzo, with more
than a touch of Beethoven in pastoral mood. A final Rondo brings the Serenade
to an end.
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 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 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.
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BRAHMS: Serenade No. 1 / TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for...