Restlessness. Tension. Suffering. I feel it the moment I write this post. Pyotr Tchaikovsky must have felt the same way. His music depicts a life in disarray, marked by a troubling uncertainty, a deep personal vulnerability. The music triggers those sensations all the more easily since I am myself tense at the moment, restless, quickly irate. And while moments of joy and happiness pop up every now and then in Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 2 in F major (Op. 22), I find it hard not to feel miserable.
Most people think I live a happy life. At work I have the reputation of being always good-humoured, optimistic, energetic. But make no mistake. This is only one side of my identity. I can get incredibly angry, mostly over myself. I can throw a tantrum if I have to. I can be a nagging prick if I lose control. You would be quite surprised! Sharp edges, breaking the harmonic flow, and tonal instability mark the first movement, adagio and with no indication of its key. Nothing for the faint heart. And guess what? By reflecting this here and now, I feel already better. The second movement seems to illustrate. While the previous nervous mood lingers on, first elements suggesting a return to calmness and renewed hope appears.
Narrating an existential drama
The silver streak at the horizon becomes more and more visible while the dark, menacing clouds pass by, just like in the third movement of the quartet. This section is the heart and the culminating point of Op. 22. André Lischke writes in his monumental biography of Tchaikovsky that for the first time the composer narrates an existential drama in a chamber music piece similar to the dramas that would define Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies. The finale contradicts all that has been said previously. Its basic mood is reassuring, however I remain reluctant to believe everything will be fine again. Tchaikovsky insists, but somehow he doesn’t seem totally convinced himself. A certain doubt persists – just like in real life where there is no absolute certainty.
Rubinstein is puzzled
The composer’s teacher, mentor and friend Anton Rubinstein commented after a private performance that the piece was not a style of chamber music and that he did not understand any part of it. What a pity! Because for once the composer himself was very satisfied by what he had composed. “I think it is my best piece”, he wrote in October 1874, more than half a year after he had finished the score. The violinist Leopold Auer played the part of the first violin at the first performance in St. Petersburg at the same time and admired its “Beethovian power”.
The piece is awkward in some respects, I concede this, but it has an emotional depth that so far I have only found in Franz Schubert’s string quartets. Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 has been recorded by the Taneyev Quartet.
© Charles Thibo