Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 11

performed by the Borodin Quartet


…Tolstoy, sitting next to me and listening to the Andante of my First Quartet, burst into tears…

The composer, from here or here

Hello, old friend! It’s been a while since we did anything Tchaikovsky…. holy cows, almost a year… since the Russian Symphony Series last year when we did his first symphony. How time does fly.

Well, we’re going to be remedying a bit of the Tchaikovsky neglect this month, as maybe you suspected. We’re beginning the month with a string quartet. I seem to recall that The Mighty Handful wasn’t much for chamber music, so Mussorgsky and some of the others didn’t give us any string quartets, but Borodin did, and Tchaikovsky was kind of an honorary member, or a protege, but maybe uncomfortable with having his allegiances too close to them.

In any case, it’s nice to have chamber works from Tchaikovsky, and his first string quartet wasn’t his first effort. There was another quartet that was discarded after a completed first movement. The composer was 31 years old by this time, and had written mostly piano pieces, a set of songs for voice, and an opera, but that’s actually not true. The work here was completed in 1871, and the first symphony, while bearing an opus number of 13, was actually finished about five years earlier, in 1866, as was the opus 15. So it’s early, but maybe not as early as you might think.

The work is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Moderato e semplice (D major)
  2. Andante cantabile (B major)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro non tanto e con fuoco – Trio (D minor)
  4. Finale. Allegro giusto – Allegro vivace (D major)

The first movement is by far the longest of the quartet, at 10-11 minutes, with a full repeat of the exposition and everything. Speaking of the exposition, then, there is virtually nothing that strikes my interest about the exposition of this quartet. It’s nice enough in that it’s generally pleasant and whatever it is, but it is to me the opposite of memorable. This instantly changes, though, after we pass the second ending and reach the development of the movement. It’s as if the work suddenly bursts to life, and there’s depth and energy and struggle, not of a life-changing, tear-jerking nature, but a certain liveliness nonetheless, something I can get more behind. It does, however, have a certain fragrance that reminds me of Mozart in a way. It doesn’t ‘sound like Mozart’ except that it’s pleasant and proper string writing, but there’s a youthful color to it, and the composers’ seemingly effortless talents for melody are not to be overlooked, and the piece reaches an almost symphonic heft in the final bars.

The second movement, ah, the second movement. It’s by far the most famous thing in this work, and with good reason. It focuses in on that natural lyricism in of the composer’s writing and gives us what might be described as ‘melancholy’ although in the most optimistic way possible. The story is that it was a folk song he heard a painter singing while at his sister’s house, and I can hear it being some local folk song like the Old West songs about life and loss and all the rest. There’s even a tinge of tragedy, but of someone who smiles through it, or veils it. It’s not the kind of tragic, tear-jerking beauty or melancholy of, say, the serenade for strings, or Barber’s adagio, but maybe more like what you’d find in Schubert. Yes, if the first movement brought Mozart to mind, the second movement carries Schubert’s folksy, quaint, plaintive cheerfulness. It’s not cheerful, really, but it has a certain buoyancy to the music, a stunning balance of these things. No wonder it’s so popular.

The scherzo is the shortest movement of the work, about half the length of the second movement. It is spirited and folksy sounding as well, but without the second movement’s effortless charm. It sounds plenty Russian, or else just folksy. It has interesting, quirky rhythms in places, especially a 2-against-3 section toward the end of the trio.

The finale would be longer (in this recording) if the repeat of the exposition were observed, but as it is not, it’s a few minutes shorter than the first movement. It sufficiently touches on all the strengths, whatever they are, of the work as a whole: the pretty white-bread straightforwardness of the opening movement, the lyricism of the second (but not coming near its glory) the liveliness of the scherzo. It, too, feels liberated after the heavy lifting of the exposition is done, and this may remind you, dear reader, of the struggles that Tchaikovsky expressed himself as having with the strictest application of sonata form. His later symphonies, too, seem liberated when they can work outside the absolute confines of what it seems the composer felt a bit awkward. The music comes to live in the central part of the movement and finishes in an almost too-lively flourish of a coda.

It’s no surprise that the second movement is plucked out here for independent performance, but despite my lack of enthusiasm toward the piece overall, the work shows signs of other things we’ll hear later in Tchaikovsky’s more famous works, and it’s really a nice enough quartet.

I suppose we could have gone for another string quartet installment this week from another composer, as Tchaikovsky himself will be getting plenty of attention next week, but this is as good a place to start as any. До скорого!


2 thoughts on “Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 11

    1. Yes, NRK aside. My understanding (from reading, not knowing the men personally) was that especially Balakirev and Mussorgsky turned their noses up to chamber works. Borodin defiantly wrote two, and Wiki (I can’t find my other source) says the following:
      In 1875 Borodin started his First String Quartet, much to the displeasure of Mussorgsky and Vladimir Stasov. That Borodin did so in the company of The Five, who were hostile to chamber music, speaks to his independence.

      I can’t imagine what (aside from avoid association with the Germans) could have been so off-putting, but thankfully the sentiment didn’t spread.

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