String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22. . . Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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


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

After a very expensive trip to Western Europe in 1870, Tchaikovsky decided to take another of Rubinstein's money-making suggestions, that he try to make some money by giving a concert of his own music.  He engaged some locally popular singers to perform several of his short works, but 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, Tchaikovsky composed only five pieces of chamber music: three string quartets, a piano trio and a string sextet. These works contain music of considerable interest.  He completed String Quartet No. 1 in 1871.  When it was performed in public for the first time, the concert's greatest success was in public relations rather than music.  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 said that he had come because of Tchaikovsky's high reputation in the West.  The quartet did have a famous literary admirer in Leo Tolstoy, who was known to have sat beside the composer at a later concert performance of the work.

Quartet No. 2, completed in 1874, begins with a difficult chromatic introduction, Adagio, with an abrasive major second (three adjacent notes) that creates tension between the instruments that slowly resolves.  This unusual beginning has been likened to the music of Wagner’s Tristan in its use of chromaticism, yet soon Tchaikovsky’s tonal orientation becomes evident.  The rest of the movement, Moderato assai, has quite balanced proportions in sonata form and a clear harmonic structure fully rooted in a major tonality.  Although densely textured, the progression throughout is linear, with Tchaikovsky making use of the familiar sonata form conventions. If the beginning of the movement could be likened to the music of Wagner, the body of the movement might successfully be compared 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 is nearly always third, but not this time.  This scherzo takes much of its character from the constant alternation of duple and triple rhythm and 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. A very Russian movement and characteristic of Tchaikovsky throughout, it occupies the expressive center of the piece.  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, facile and fluent, has a sonata-rondo structure.  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 the first movement of this quartet.”  In the slow movement he may have felt there was a successful declaration of himself; in the scherzo and the opening he provided novelty, but in both the finale and the body of the first movement, he demonstrated poise and elegance.