Do you think about death from time to time? Your death? No? I do. There is nothing wrong with that. I find it fascinating that we just cannot know what is going to happen. We will turn to dust, biology and theology agree on that point. But what about the soul? Is it lingering on? What about the traces we have left in this world? How quickly will we be forgotten? Thinking about death – my death – doesn’t scare me right now. And if at some point, I will have to say good-bye to this world, here is what my final musical greeting will be: The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra in C major, Op. 48.
The appropriate solemn sadness
The first movement starts with a hymn, conferring all the appropriate sadness and the sense of inevitable tragedy that I love so much in Tchaikovsky’s compositions. Fatum!!! The introduction evolves into a first theme and Tchaikovsky is pushing hard to make those tears flow freely. Actually, no matter what mood I happen to be in, whenever I hear that first movement’s opening, I do have tears in my eyes.
Halfway through that movement, a second and a third theme – more joyful this time – give the movement the necessary balance. At this point, I want people to forget momentarily that the reason for the serenade being played is the loss of human being, and I want them to exclusively enjoy the music so that they will have a lasting musical souvenir!
Let’s dance that waltz
And onward we move with the second movement “Tempo di Valse”. Very appropriate for my purpose! Please people, start dancing! Yes, I’m dead. But you are not. Value the moment. Enjoy life and dance while you can! You will suffer my fate at some point and then it will be too late for anything. For everything. Carpe diem!
The third movement starts on a more solemn note, and it should, because you will need a rest by now after all those emotional ups and downs. Time to collect yourself and reflect the shortness of life and the time we lose doing irrelevant things: being scared about Donald Trump and the influx of refugees, bickering and complaining, judging and blaming. As some of you will have noticed, I signed off from Twitter and Facebook yesterday for a couple of days. It is the Holy Week. It’s the week of silent introspection. Carpe diem!
The fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s serenade extends the solemn mood and sounds to me like a summary of all the composer has said before. It is noteworthy however that Tchaikovsky introduces a march-like sub-theme that leads us back to the waltz of the second movement. So lovely, so clever! The serenade ends on the introduction of the first movement, but the solemn character is compounded by the faster tempo and has something definite about it. Tchaikovsky’s final word on a matter of life and death. Brilliant!
Freedom and order
Tchaikovsky wrote this piece in September/October 1880, two years after he had turned his back to Moscow and given up his teaching post at the conservatory. He traveled abroad for longer periods, to Florence, to Rome, to Paris, and the works he composed between 1878 and 1880 are marked by a greater disregard for composing traditions – his personal freedom is mirrored by a mix of forms and characteristics. The serenade was composed back to back with the “Overture 1812” that I discussed in one of my first posts and imitates in the first movement Mozart’s style. While composing, Tchaikovsky wrote to his publisher: “I love this serenade madly and I hurry to finish the work.” The serenade marks the return to order with is recurrent themes, but it is remarkable as it tries to blend composing techniques from Western Europe with Russian traditions. It was performed for the first time in November 1880 during a private concert at the Moscow Conservatory.
The recording I prefer is the one by the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach. And I have listened to it a thousand times. I love that serenade madly.
© Charles Thibo
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