Recorded on 10/01/1999, uploaded on 03/31/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Tchaikovsky was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory when he composed his first string quartet in 1871. Barely making a living from his duties at the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky managed to put together a concert of his own music which included songs, piano pieces, and the String Quartet No. 1 in D major, written especially for the occasion. Since then the quartet has become the audience-favorite among Tchaikovsky’s three essays in the genre.
The first movement, Moderato e semplice, is crafted as a tradition sonata and is one his finer examples of the form, featuring an expansive and thrilling development section. Juxtaposing two lyrical themes in a relaxed compound meter, the movement abounds in the tunefulness and emotive power one would expect to find in the composer’s orchestral music. Following the lyrical first movement is the beautiful Andante cantabile in B-flat major. An intensely emotional movement, it is believed the movement’s main tune is a folksong Tchaikovsky heard whistled by a house painter in Kamenka. The movement’s second theme, one the other hand, is wholly original, yet maintains the folk-like character, and is heard over a chromatic bass in the cello. Even in this beloved quartet, the Andante has garnered its own fame. It is often heard in an arrangement for string orchestra as well as many other instrumental combinations.
The Scherzo third movement (Allegro non tanto e con fuoco) begins forcefully in D minor but nonetheless skips to a lively dance-like rhythm. The Trio section, returning to the key of the Andante, presents a playful tune over impish halfstep oscillations in the cello. Lastly, the Allegro guisto finale starts off with a lighthearted and joyous tune in D major answered by a lyrical second subject that appears first in the viola. Another sonata form, the movement drives through an energetic development to a restatement of its two themes, the latter of which returns unexpectedly in the tonic minor. Quickening into an Allegro vivace, Tchaikovsky ends the quartet in a conclusive flurry of notes and triumphal tonic chords. Joseph DuBose
TCHAIKOVSKY STRING QUARTETS NOS. 1 & 3
by Andrea Lamoreaux
The frequency with which we hear the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky - in concert and on recordings - is the subject of much commentary. Such comments often rise to the status of complaints: a concert-goer exclaiming, "The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto AGAIN?", or a CD reviewer questioning the need for yet another recording of the Symphony No. 5, for example. Of course, Tchaikovsky's mature symphonic masterpieces are among the most beautifully melodic and richly harmonized works in all the classical repertory; so they deserve to be played with great frequency. But there is another "Tchaikovsky" whose music one could never claim is overplayed.
In his relatively short lifetime of 53 years (1840-1893), Tchaikovsky excelled at all the established musical genres of the 19th century - symphony, concerto, tone poem, opera, ballet, choral music, chamber music, solo piano, and song. Yet there is much that we rarely get to hear. For example, among his eleven full-length operas, only two are widely produced outside of Russia: Yevgeny Onegin and The Queen of Spades. And even the latter work, a musico-dramatic masterpiece by any standard, is still something of a novelty. (Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the world's major companies, presented it for the first time in the fall of 2000.)
The story is much the same with Tchaikovsky's piano music, choral works, and songs. Though all are represented on recordings, they could enrich and vary concert programs and recitals to a much greater extent than they currently do. The Tchaikovsky chamber works heard most often are his Piano Trio in A Minor and the sextet subtitled Souvenir de Florence (the latter reflecting Tchaikovsky's love for Italy along with his skill for creating lush string sonority). Considerably less familiar are the three works he wrote in the more common chamber conformation of the string quartet. With this CD the Vermeer Quartet joins a relative handful of ensembles that have recorded the entire set. (Quartet No. 2 is paired with Souvenir de Florence on Cedille Records CDR 90000 017.)
Unlike many great musicians, Tchaikovsky was not a child prodigy. Up to his early twenties he expected to take up a civil-service career. Fortunately, he found his calling when he began taking classes at the new music school Anton Rubinstein founded in St. Petersburg. After leaving the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he embarked on a three-fold career that involved teaching at the even newer conservatory of Moscow, writing music criticism, and composing. His string quartets all date from what might be called his first creative period: the late 1860s through early Seventies. Prominent pieces from those years include Romeo and Juliet, the first three symphonies, the B-Flat Minor Piano Concerto, and his first ballet, Swan Lake.
The works from this period were, for the most part, successful. They did not provide immediate financial security, however. Tchaikovsky's life as a fulltime composer of independent means would not begin until 1876. That's when Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy, music-loving widow, took particular interest in The Tempest, a Shakespearean fantasy that followed Romeo and Juliet. The stipend she granted Tchaikovsky freed him from money worries and also led to an extraordinary exchange of letters in which the composer shared thoughts about his craft. This extract from a letter of March 1878 offers some revealing comments:
You ask how I manage my instrumentation. I never compose in the abstract; that is to say, the musical thought never appears otherwise than in a suitable external form. In this way I invent the musical idea and the instrumentation simultaneously. Thus I thought out the scherzo of [the Fourth Symphony] at the moment of its composition - exactly as you heard it. It is inconceivable except as pizzicato. Were it played with the bow, it would lose all its charm and be a mere body without a soul.
As regards the Russian element in my works, I may tell you that not infrequently I begin a composition with the intention of introducing some folk melody into it. Sometimes it comes of its own accord, unbidden . . . As to this national element in my work, its affinity with the folksongs in some of my melodies and harmonies comes from my having spent my childhood in the country and, from my earliest years, having been filled with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk music. I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word. (Composers on Music, Josiah Fisk, editor, Northwestern University Press, Boston, 1997)
Tchaikovsky's cordial but arm's-length relationship with Mme. von Meck (they never met) was still in the future in 1871, when Tchaikovsky decided to supplement his modest income from teaching and journalism by staging a concert of his own works in Moscow. This first-ever all-Tchaikovsky program featured some piano works, a group of songs, and a brand-new string quartet. The pianist was Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's mentor at the Moscow Conservatory. The string players were members of the Russian Musical Society, led by another Moscow faculty member, eight years Tchaikovsky's senior: violinist Ferdinand Laub.
Newspaper critic Herman Laroche raved, "Tchaikovsky's compositions revealed a rich and sympathetic talent. The String Quartet was distinguished by the same delightfully succulent melodies, beautifully and interestingly harmonized, the same mobility of tone - so foreign to the commonplace - the same . . . softness, to which we have become accustomed in this gifted composer."
Those "rich melodies" appear from the outset of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11. The first movement, marked Moderato e semplice, is a bit slower than most Classical-Romantic opening movements. Two themes, the second announced by the viola, intertwine and contrast throughout, accentuated by syncopated rhythms.
The second movement is an exception to the general observation that Tchaikovsky's chamber music is not too well known. This is the famous Andante Cantabile that has been rearranged countless ways, and is probably one of the composer's best-known pieces - except in its original form. It reflects the love of Russian folk music about which he wrote to Mme. von Meck. The main theme comes from a tune called "Vanya sat on the divan and smoked a pipe of tobacco" (or, in another translation, "Vanya one night sat sadly on the divan, a glass of rum in his hand, to drown his sorrow and forget tomorrow"). He heard and transcribed this tune while at his favorite country retreat, a family estate called Kamenka. All other themes in the quartet are the composer's own, though some may also have been influenced by his affection for folksong. Like his Bohemian contemporary, Antonin Dvořák, Tchaikovsky was usually not inclined toward direct quotations of folksongs; he preferred instead to compose new melodies that recall folk music without precisely emulating it.
The shortest movement of the D major Quartet is an intense and lively Scherzo. The Finale again reveals Tchaikovsky's love for folk music. Each of its two main themes is reminiscent of folksong melodies. As with the first movement, Tchaikovsky spotlights the viola by having it introduce the second theme.
The concert that introduced the Quartet No. 1 was an unqualified success and gave the emerging composer some much-needed recognition. A touch of prestige was added by the attendance of Ivan Turgenev, the prominent 19th-century Russian novelist. Another acclaimed novelist of the day also plays a part in the First Quartet's history: Leo Tolstoy is said to have burst into tears when he first heard the Andante Cantabile. A thoroughly Romantic-era reaction, perhaps, but also a testament to the power of Tchaikovsky's melodic gifts.
To purchase the CD or download this performance, click here.
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An amazing emotionally charge piece. It has a life of its own.
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