Tchaikovsky's String Serenade
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) 
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 
  • Tchaikovsky intended the Serenade’s first movement as a tribute to Mozart 
  • He was a master of the orchestral waltz, as the second movement demonstrates
  • Listen carefully to the Elegy, which transforms the waltz theme
  • Two Russian folk songs are the basis for the finale
  • At the end, Tchaikovsky restates the Serenade’s first movement theme

    In October 1880 Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadejhda von Meck:  

    My muse has been so kind that in a short time I have got through two long works: a big festival overture for the Exhibition, and a serenade for string orchestra in four movements. I am busy orchestrating them both.  

    The first piece was the bombastic 1812 Overture; the second was the delightful serenade we hear. It is difficult to imagine two works further apart in spirit and taste.  

    The composer's letters make it clear that he focused his creative energy on the Serenade. He had composed the overture tongue-in-cheek, and knew that his reputation would gain far more from the Serenade. To his publisher Peter Ivanovich Jürgenson he wrote: "I am violently in love with this work and can't wait for it to be played." Tchaikovsky's original conception was midway between symphony and string quartet or quintet. His restriction of the performing forces to strings alone is the only remaining vestige of small ensemble texture, for he specified in the score that he wanted the largest number of strings possible.  

    Critics have pointed out that the Serenade is uneven in quality, and that the Waltz has been played separately so often that it has become hackneyed. Still, live performance restores the music's freshness. We are reminded why this piece entered the repertoire immediately upon its premiere, and has retained considerable popularity. Even Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's former teacher and severest critic, came to like the Serenade.  

    Straightforward and sunny in temperament, the Serenade overflows with memorable melodies in all four movements. Strong thematic connections link the first and the last movements; the inner two movements are also thematically related. Descending and ascending scale patterns figure prominently in Tchaikovsky’s themes, and more than one Russian folk melody is incorporated into its fabric. Frequent double-stopping in the strings contributes to the lushness of the Serenade's sound; Tchaikovsky counters this in places with doubled parts, thereby reducing the number of polyphonic lines. His string-writing throughout is masterly, and contributes to the Serenade's place as one of his finest compositions between 1878 and 1885. No other nineteenth-century work for strings alone has become so firmly entrenched in the permanent repertoire.   

     All four sections of the Serenade have their special moments. The first movement, which bears the subtitle Pezzo in forma di sonatina [piece in the form of a sonatina] is peculiarly reminiscent of a Handelian overture, though Tchaikovsky intended it to be more akin to Mozart’s style. It is framed by a rich, grand slow introduction that returns at the end after a lively middle section whose length -- the movement takes ten minutes -- belies the "sonatina" of the subtitle. Tchaikovsky's second-movement Valse is a delightful reminder of his brilliant gift for ballet music; at the same time, darker moments in the middle section call to mind the weightier, metaphysical waltzes of Chopin and Brahms.   

    Tchaikovsky's Elegy recaptures some of the grandeur of the slow introduction; his finale is pure Russian folk music, with the subtitle Tema russo attached to the first part and the spirit of balalaika dancing driving the pace of the Allegro con spirito.   

    The Serenade is scored for strings. 

    Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
    Sinfonietta (1947-48)
    • Poulenc’s instrumental music is celebrated for its wit and charm
    • He wrote primarily music for piano, chamber ensemble, songs, and stage works
    • This Sinfonietta is his only orchestral work 
    • Poulenc’s quirky sense of humor and gift for theatrical effect course through this piece

      Francis Poulenc is one of the early 20th-century French composers collectively known as "Les Six." The scion of a wealthy pharmaceuticals manufacturing family, he had a somewhat unorthodox musical education. His mother was a fine pianist; she and Poulenc's uncle initiated the boy's study of piano and also introduced him to other facets of Parisian cultural life, particularly theater. That acquaintance was to serve Poulenc richly in his operas.   

      By the end of the First World War, Poulenc had met Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, and Darius Milhaud – three of the others in “Les Six” – as well as Erik Satie. He had not, however, struck the right rapport with a fine teacher; for example, he never got past a first meeting with Maurice Ravel. That situation resolved in the early 1920s when he embarked on several years of productive study with Charles Koechlin. Intensely curious about music beyond Paris, Poulenc also visited Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and Alfredo Casella in Italy. By the mid-1920s he was writing good music, important music, and his production continued almost unceasingly until his death in 1963 from a heart attack.  

      In his youthful works, Poulenc favored breezy moods and chamber-music textures. During the later decades of his life, he turned to music of a darker hue and a more spiritual cast. The writer Michael Thomas Roeder describes his music thus: 

      Poulenc's generally light style is marked by a range of traits: simple, tuneful melodic ideas of narrow range and short duration; lively rhythmic content often using ostinatos and a fluidity of changing meters; clear, transparent textures with little contrapuntal writing; an essentially diatonic tonal language spiced by some dissonance; and clear forms, occasionally involving cyclical recall of thematic material.  

      The Sinfonietta occupies a unique place among Poulenc’s compositions: it is his sole symphonic work. He wrote it in fulfillment of a commission from BBC, which came about in part because of Poulenc’s friendship with the Debussy biographer Edward Lockspeiser, who was on staff at the BBC. Though cast in four movements, the Sinfonietta remains relatively modest in scope, clocking in at approximately 29 minutes.   

      Though the Sinfonietta is rarely performed, its style will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with Poulenc’s instrumental sonatas or vocal music. He recycled some material from an abandoned early string quartet, and also quoted from several of his published compositions, including the ballet Aubade, the Sextet for piano and winds, and the Organ Concerto. Ebullient and lighthearted, the Sinfonietta harks back to the devil-may-care, practical-joking Poulenc of his youth.   

      The first movement is neoclassical in its layout, with traditional contrast between a rhythmically vigorous first theme in minor mode, followed by expansive lyrical melodies, primarily in major mode. Though Poulenc’s affinity for woodwind sonorities is much in evidence, he emphasizes strings more than in earlier works, particularly in extended themes.  

      The Sinfonietta’s two inner movements have much in common with film and ballet music. The Scherzo is a scampering whirlwind in 6/8 meter, mischievous in its quixotic key changes. Biographer Wilfred Mellers calls the slow movement ‘ballet music without dancers.’ Its serious mien foreshadows the emotional depth of Poulenc’s late works, such as the Gloria and the Oboe Sonata. But high spirits will not be denied in this work, and the Sinfonietta concludes with a Haydnesque romp that is bound to put a smile on one’s face.  

      The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, harp, and strings. 

      © Laurie Shulman, 2020