Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The String Serenade

From Mozart to Tchaikovsky and Beyond

In October of 1880 as Tchaikovsky was in the process of composing what would become his most famous overture, the 1812 Overture, op.49, he was also en-rapt in the creative process that would produce a very different composition;  the Serenade for Strings, op. 48.  A composer who battled continually with self-doubt, Tchaikavsky was unusually proud of the serenade for he wrote to his benefactor Nadia von Meck describing it  as "a heartfelt piece and so . . . not lacking in real qualities."  It is a lovely four movement composition with classical style and one of Tchaikovsky's most delightful waltzes as the second of those movements. 

Almost a century earlier in August, 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered in his catalogue of compositions a short notturno or serenade as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" (a little night music).  These pieces, both favorites of mine and many other music lovers, are definitive examples of the string serenade, a genre that would extend well into the twentieth century with prominent popular compositions by Elgar, Dvorak, Vaughan Williams and Suk among others. The Serenade by the Swedish composer Dag Wirén is also one of my favorites with sparkling modern melodies seasoned with just a bit of dissonance and delightful rhythms.

The string Serenade is typically a lighter work, often including folk themes or dance-based movements like the waltz mentioned above.  While often in four movements like a symphony it may have more or less.  Serenade is from the French French sérénade, from Italian serenata, from sereno, calm, clear, the open air, from Latin serēnus. (the same root for serene).
As the name serenade implies it is a composition that achieves serene song-like character through the use of the variety of sounds of the string ensemble.
In addition to the famous waltz Tchaikovsky uses a lively Russian folk song as the basis for the final movement of his Serenade for Strings.  This practice was continued by Vaughan Williams in pieces like both his Fantasias on "Greensleeves" and on "a theme by Thomas Tallis".  My favorite, Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22, which unlike a typical symphony of the day has a first movement (Moderato) that is the briefest of the lot. Its primary theme is a guileless melody that is made the subject of playful imitation; delicately pointed dotted rhythms fill the central, G major section. More than once, the C sharp minor Tempo di Valse second movement shows a better-than-passing resemblance to Chopin's C sharp minor Waltz, Op. 64/2, though Dvorák never veers far from his own Bohemian roots; certainly a five-measure waltz-phrase like Dvorák's main idea is something Chopin might have reconsidered. The third movement, Scherzo, is a Vivace zinger; the Larghetto's main tune is a beautifully resigned. The rhythm and shape of the introductory measures of the finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sneak into the start of the Serenade's finale (Allegro vivace). The themes of first the Larghetto and then the Moderato first movement make encore appearances as the finale unfolds.
The serenade for strings is a melodic space in the universe of classical music and one that includes many stellar examples such as those discussed above.

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