Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings Op. 48

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, composed in 1880.

It is quite a grand work – especially if you judge it based only on its opening, which would leave it no surprise that Tchaikovsky wrote it at the same time as his 1812 Overture – the one famous for using the French National Anthem and having cannons as an instrument. Although if you came here for cannons, you might be a bit disappointed.

Tchaikovsky wrote in his own score ‘The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes’, so maybe he did want it loud after all.

The first movement is called Pezzo in forma di sonatina or Piece in sonatina form… which is sort of true, because there is a broad, slow introduction, a first subject in C major (the tonic) and a second subject in G major, as well as a recapitulation with everything in the tonic, but by that logic there wouldn’t be much of a development. This is really debatable now, but Sonata and the shorter sonatina forms in 1880 weren’t as simple as the formal structures they were in the late baroque times they were invented in, since composers like Mahler had started to surface who would completely reinvent the form. See more about the Sonata form my article here.

The second movement is a graceful Waltz, and it’s become pretty well-known on its own. At its premiere, the audience loved it so much on its own that the orchestra repeated it, and Tchaikovsky’s former teacher, Anton Rubinstein, declared it was Tchaikovsky’s best piece.

The third movement is much more gentle, and is an Élégie – a funeral song. Its melody is very similar to the second movement, in that it begins with an ascending 1-octave scale, which this time is highlighted by the seamless contrary motion (opposite movement) between the melody and the bassline. Try looking on the score at the start of the movement – the upper strings go in the opposite direction to the lower strings.

Finally, the serenade finishes with the Russian Theme finale, which begins gently and calmly, with muted strings (con sordino) growing into a quicker 2/4 theme. There’s even an imitative section at letter G (26:10) before a triumphant coda reprising the earlier music from the first movement giving an incredible unity to this piece as the accelerando brings back in the Russian theme.

Hope you found this interesting 🙂 There’s so much I still have left to write about but this page was getting really cluttered with my excited rambling about Tchaikovsky… 🙂

This description is my own (except for some of the facts about the second movement which came from classicfm.com – thank you) so feel free to share it and quote it wherever you wish.

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One thought on “Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings Op. 48

  1. Thank you for posting this beautiful description, as well as the score scroll video. A year ago I arranged the first two movements for violin and cello, using double stops to approximate a larger ensemble. Recently I completed another large orchestral work (Scheherazade) and the last two movements of this piece. For them I used your video, which is much more convenient than flipping through the PDF of the score, and I can hit a button to see what it is supposed to sound like. I find this easy enough I did a couple of test lines scoring for a quartet. By judiciously swapping notes between parts, to fit the requirements of fingering double stops, in the opening I can easily get 8 strings vibrating. Maybe not Tchaikovsky’s idea of a large orchestra, but more like an octet than a quartet. It was at that point I noticed the link and read your description. Thanks again.

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