Chamber Music: String Quartet No. 2 (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)

(Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk; died November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg)

As a young man, Tchaikovsky seemed to be destined for an undistinguished career as a low-level bureaucrat, and he did not start to study music seriously until he was twenty-one years old. Two years later, Nicolai Rubinstein helped find him some beginning pupils so that he could devote himself full time to music, and by 1866, he had become well enough trained to join the faculty of the new Conservatory that Rubinstein began in Moscow. Before long, Tchaikovsky was also working on such large-scale compositions as his first symphony, an opera, a piano sonata, and the first version of Romeo and Juliet.

After having taken a very expensive trip to Europe in 1870, Tchaikovsky took Rubinstein's suggestion that he try to earn some money by giving a concert of his own music. He engaged some locally popular singers to perform several short works, but his instrumental music, he decided, would be represented by a string quartet that he would write for the occasion since he could not afford to engage an orchestra.

Throughout his whole career, surprisingly, Tchaikovsky composed only five pieces of chamber music: three string quartets, a piano trio and a string sextet, and much of it is music of considerable interest. He went to work immediately on his First String Quartet and completed it in 1871. When the quartet was performed in public for the first time, the concert succeeded more as a public relations coup than as a musical event. Ivan Turgenev, considered to be one of the greatest Russian writers although he had lived abroad during much of his adult life, made an appearance at the event. He arrived too late to hear the quartet, but it was said, nevertheless, that he had come because of Tchaikovsky's high reputation in the West. The quartet had another famous literary admirer in the audience that day: Leo Tolstoy, who sat beside the composer at a concert performance given in 1877. It can only be assumed that the Second Quartet also had a well-known set of auditors in Tchaikovsky’s time.

The Second Quartet of 1874 begins with a difficult chromatic introduction, Adagio, with an abrasive major second (three adjacent notes) between instruments creating tension that slowly resolves. This unusual beginning has been likened to the music of Wagner’s Tristan in its use of chromaticism, yet soon the tonal orientation becomes clear. The rest of the movement, Moderato assai, has quite balanced proportions and a clear harmonic structure with major tonality. Although densely textured, the texture is linear, and Tchaikovsky uses the familiar sonata form with the main theme returning in the coda. If the beginning of the movement can be compared to music of Wagner, the body of the movement can be related to that of Tchaikovsky’s idol, Mozart, whose pleasing divertimentos find some echo in this section.

The second movement, Scherzo: Allegro giusto, is located in the position where usually the slow movement would be found, the scherzo movement itself nearly always is third, but not this time. It takes much of its character from the constant alternation of duple and triple rhythm, with syncopated rhythm meant to catch the listener off balance. The harmonic writing in this movement, too, is unusual.

The slow movement that follows, Andante ma non tanto, does not continue the technical subtleties, but plumbs deep emotional levels. It is a very Russian movement, and, constituting the expressive center of the work, is also characteristic of Tchaikovsky throughout. Much more substantial than either of the movements that surround it, the content is elegiac, full of pathos. Its repetitions become charged, almost obsessive in their reiteration. The finale, Allegro con moto, is facile and fluent. It is developed as an extended fugue that ends with an intensified return of the second subject.

Tchaikovsky was very enthusiastic about this quartet, considering it one of his very best. He said, “If I had written anything during my life that is really heartfelt and flowing straight from the depths of the inner me, then it is just this first movement of this quartet.” In the Adagio of the first movement he may have felt he made a successful declaration of his inner self; in the scherzo and the opening, he provided novelty and in the finale as well as the body of the first movement, he demonstrated both poise and elegance.

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