Serenade for String Orchestra in C major, Op. 48

“I am deeply convinced that Mozart is the highest culmination point to which beauty has reached in the realm of music. No one has ever made me weep as he did, tremble with rapture at the consciousness of nearness to what we call the ideal. The fact that I have devoted my life to music I owe to Mozart” – these cherished words of tribute to the great Amadeus were recorded by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his diary. And his musical “hommage” is the Orchestral Suite No. 4 Mozartiana (1884-1887), written after the Master’s works.

A few years before, during a period when he had decided to spend a rest at his sister Alexandra Davidova’s estate in Kamenka without composing, he was overwhelmed by an indefinable melancholy and fatigue. He shared the remaining thoughts with Countess Nadezhda von Meck, his long-time patron and confidante: “Today I could stand it no longer and started a project for a future symphony or string quintet. And do you know? I immediately felt more alert and content. Therefore, it turns out that there is no better way to fill time and satisfy your inner need for work than composing.”

His ideas sparkled, he wrote with passion. To fuel his imagination, he plays works by Mozart on the piano and studies his opera The Magic Flute in detail. Eventually, instead of a symphony or string quintet, he composed one of his most popular works, Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48. And again in its first movement, as he reported to Countess von Meck, he “paid tribute” to his worship of Mozart by deliberately imitating his orchestral manner: “I should be happy if they found that I am not very far from the model”.

Certainly no trace of elementary stylization is to be detected in the Serenade. Recognisably, from beginning to end of the work, we hear Tchaikovsky’s sensitive, poetic soul and his characteristic style – in the construction of the cycle’s dramaturgy, in the melodic and harmonic language. A traditional genre in the time of  W. A. Mozart, the serenade became a favourite form of the Romantics in the 19th  century. The Russian composer in turn contributed to its evolution.

And if in the first movement, which he defined as “Pezzo en forma di sonatina” (Piece in sonatina form), a sonata form with a majestic introduction without elaboration, he uses the above-mentioned manner of Mozartian exquisite voicing in the instrumental lines, further on he radically changes the “model”. Instead of the usual minuet for the Serenade, the second movement is a graceful waltz (in later performances of the Serenade it is often encored by the audience). The lyrical centrepiece of the cycle is the third movement, the expressive-melancholic Elegy (a theme from which Tchaikovsky would use in the most dramatic scene of his opera The Queen of Spades). The finale, as in the Symphony No. 4 written two years earlier, immerses us in the joyous element of Russian folk-song dance. After the introduction, built on the extended chorale  On the green meadow (‘Kak po lugu, lugu’), he masterfully develops the main theme, the jaunty  Under the apple tree (‘Pod yablonkoy’). The coda frames the form by bringing together motifs from the vivid opening theme of Part I and the dance theme of Part IV.

The Serenade for Strings is dedicated to the German cellist, conductor and composer Carl Albrecht, who taught at the Moscow Conservatory. The composer recommended that it be played with as many string instruments as possible. The first performance was on 21 November 21st   1880 in Moscow at a closed concert with professors and students of the Moscow Conservatoire in honour of Tchaikovsky’s visit. And the public premiere, which was given to a standing ovation, was on October 18th,  1881 in St. Petersburg in a concert by the Imperial Russian Musical Society conducted by Edward Napravnik.

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