Walking in the Snow with Tchaikovsky

An icy wind is blowing over the plain. © Charles Thibo
An icy wind is blowing over the plain. © Charles Thibo

Here is a melody that you will not forget soon. The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, op. 11, is as characteristic as a piece can get. If you have heard it once, you will memorize is for ever. Though it is a very early work, it is incredibly well structured and yet full of acoustic surprises. Or should I say experiments? I can’t but marvel at the ingenuity of this composer! And I am in good company with regards to this quartet.

Let’s hear what a music critic had to say about the quartet’s premiere in February 1871: “The quartet distinguishes itself by the charm of its full-flavoured melodies, magnificently harmonizing, by the slightly feminine gentleness that we have already identified as typical for this talented composer.” Wow! Tchaikovsky was almost 31 years old by then and pretty busy. He had worked out the quartet over the winter of 1870/71, he had written most of the score for his opera “The Opritchnik” and was about to publish a teaching manual on harmony. He held a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory where he taught instrumentation. He did never really warm up to the teaching business, but he considered it as a necessary evil he had to live with. So for once in Tchaikovsky’s life, all seemed more or less well.

Exuberance and delicateness

When I listen to that piece, I see a snowy plain, I feel the icy wind on my face, I look at the blue sky and I feel joy, lightness, exuberance, delicateness… and I feel like dancing like ice crystals in the air. I remember such a walk from the time when I was nine years old. I stayed with my parents and some friends in the north of Luxembourg, we walked across such a plain on a sunny afternoon and I remember that singular feeling of happiness.

When Tchaikovsky retired to the countryside to compose, he would usually go for an afternoon stroll before resuming work, be at the estate of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, in Kamenka (Ukraine), where he stayed with his sister’s family, or in Klin, where he had bought a small house in 1892, a year before his death. He certainly would have joined me on a walk across the frozen fields. I certainly would have liked to discuss music with him on one of those walks. That would have been fascinating, at least for me!

The other extreme: a fragment

If Tchaikovsky’s first quartet is joy and light, his unfinished Quartet in B flat major is the exact opposite: sorrow and darkness. Adagio Misterioso! The composer only wrote one movement lasting about twelve minutes. He wrote it between August and October 1865. It was performed for the first time the same year, but it wasn’t edited and printed until 1940. Tchaikovsky used for the first time a folk theme in Russian chamber music, in this case an Ukrainian song that he had heard while he stayed in Kamenka.

If I try to imagine how Tchaikovsky could have developed this… The Quartet in B-flat Major is one of Tchaikovsky’s first attempts to compose chamber music, the  Quartet No. 1 in D Major being the first he would complete. The two pieces reflect two sides of a coin, two extremes of human life. And Tchaikovsky was a man of extremes!  String Quartet No. 1 had been recorded by the Prague String Quartet, while the unfinished quartet in B-flat major is on a recording of the St. Petersburg String Quartet.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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