PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – String Quartet No. 1

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [1840-1893] wrote three string quartets. The composer was renowned for the use of folk melodies in his works of all styles. He even wrote and published books of folk song. I am going to discuss his First String Quartet No. 1 in D Major Opus 11, which is in four movements. The first two are moderately slow and beautiful, the last two quite brisk and energised. The work is filled with folk-like melodies.

The first movement opens with a folk-like melody on one violin. It is repeated and the other instruments gradually come in. This is a majestic moment. The harmony changes to minor and there is a soft section where the opening melody prevails again. The music builds and launches into a short, fast section. This doesn’t last and the precious mood is restored. There is a hint of a terrific melody here; I hope it comes back. There is quite a long section of melody and variations before it briefly moves into a tempo, but it doesn’t last.

This movement is filled with many endearing melodies. The violin soars above the ensemble, asking questions of it. The ensemble reply and the piece moves into a most appealing section before taking off again. Now it is racing, the call and response remain and the first violin brings the ensemble back to a sense of peace. There are now rumblings from the cello and old melodies become new again. The end is at a moderate tempo and goes out with a series of descending motifs. Assessing this movement the phrase ‘peaceful heart, gentle spirit‘ (Thanks, Chico Freeman), comes to mind. It is quite beautiful.

The next movement opens with a definitely folk-sounding melody. Part of the melody is from the ancient Russian folk tune, The Volga Boatmen Song. This phrase is worked and reworked for this extended peaceful section. The music then takes up another folk-like melody and moves into tempo. A harmonic change allows for further development of the basic melody. Now the ‘Volga’ theme returns. Simple folk-like themes abound. The conclusion is a solo violin with a couple of cello notes until it fades out with two chords which resolve perfectly.

The short third movement moves into folk territory instantly with an upright, strutting rhythmic structure. The rhythm dominates this movement, with constant slight sections of straight melody, always coming back into strong rhythmic flourishes. It ends on a solo cello playing a smattering of notes.

The final movement opens at a moderate tempo, again with a simple melody. If it wasn’t so brisk it would be dance-like. This movement follows the third in its extensive use of rhythmic patterns, some quite complicated. There are also plenty of melodic interspersions. Even the cello leads a section as it weaves its way through the rhythmic patterns. Sometimes these patterns are so powerful as to be orchestral-like. A very prominent motif drives the whole last half of this movement. It is now in a different key allowing for varied melodic ideas. There are some marvellous quiet, slow melodic passages between the rhythmic offensives. Following a particularly quite section, it suddenly leaps into action and positively races to the finish line!

There is just so much contrast in these movements. This work reveals Tchaikovsky to be a fine melodist who is equally comfortable with rhythmic complexity.

This quartet is readily available. I have the three quartets on a 2-CD set together with a string sextet, Souvenir de Florence. It is by the Keller Quartet and is very reasonably priced on Amazon UK. There are over 100 versions of the complete quartets on Amazon UK and 1,000 references for his individual string quartets. These would be some of the most popular quartets in the repertoire.

As would be expected, they are on Spotify and also on YouTube. Several performances, including the Quatuor Ebène can be heard on earsense.

Listenability: Beautiful Romantic works.


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