Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was written in the early autumn of 1880, during the same period in which he composed his overture The Year 1812. “The overture will be very loud and noisy,” he wrote in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, “but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merit in it. I composed the serenade from inner conviction. It is a heartfelt piece and so, I dare to think, is not lacking in real qualities.”
Within Tchaikovsky’s pantheon of musical gods, Mozart stood above all others, and the serenade affectionately evokes Mozart’s style, albeit through the prism of late 19th-century Romanticism. The forms and phrases are clear and symmetrical. Simple melody with accompaniment is the primary expressive vehicle, balanced by passages in a contrapuntal style, the textures alternating between Classic lucidity and Romantic lushness.
Like Mozart, Tchaikovsky’s style was musically eclectic, as the serenade demonstrates. The waltz music of the first and second movements are prime examples of his unsurpassed skill in writing music for this European dance-form. The beginning of the third movement recalls the chorales of Russian church music before yielding to a full-throated operatic aria. The finale is based on two Russian folk tunes which are treated both in the traditional Russian-nationalist manner (continuous repetitions with varying accompaniments) and the European style (characterized by development and elaboration of melodic material).
As with Mozart, Tchaikovsky blends these diverse elements to create music that is at once entertaining (in the best sense) and emotionally compelling.
-- Anthony Princiotti