Andante, 78 bars – a long introduction. A funeral music, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky knew exactly what he was doing. He was mourning a friend, Ferdinand Laub, the violinist of the Russian Musical Society’s string quartet (“Moscow Quartet”) who had performed Tchaikovsky’s first two string quartets at their premiere. This was the composer’s third string quartet in E flat minor, Op. 30. Tchaikovsky wrote it in a very short time span, in January and February 1876 “I rush at full speed to finish my quartet”, he wrote to his brother Modest on February 10, 1876. Eight days later the score was ready, the premiere took place on March 2 at the Moscow Conservatory.
The public reacted enthusiastically, a reaction that immediately discomforted the composer. Could it be that he had actually composed something meaningful? “Everybody applauds [the piece], but I am not entirely happy. I think I am a little exhausted, I repeat myself and I don’t invent anything new. Could it be that it’s over for me and that I can’t go any further? That would be really sad”, he complains to Modest after a few more concerts. He concedes however that the Andante is really, really beautiful. “People tell me that during the Andante people cried. If it were true, it would be a great triumph.”
I haven’t found any eye-witnesses to ask about those concerts, but the Andante is very moving indeed. Sad and comforting at the same time, well-balanced, with a clear structure and poignant violin phrases. More than 16 minutes of delicate mourning and sweet pain, with the distant hope that life will go on. The piece has been labeled Tchaikovsky’s “quartetto serioso” writes the musicologist André Lischke, arguing that its depth and its density justify this Beethovian qualification.
The second movement is a succession of ebullient, joyful, almost comical leaps into the air. It is very short, it lasts less than four minutes, which is short enough not to fall into the trap of expressing a pleasant triviality. After all the piece is dedicated to the memory a much admired musician. Laub was of Czech origin, he was not only a violinist, but also a composer. Tchaikovsky called him “the best violinist of our time”.
The third movement, l’Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto, pushes the sorrow and the mourning even deeper. Lischke compares the first movement to the announcement of Laub’s death while the third movement is actually the presence at the burial. The emotions hit the listener very hard, with desperate moments of disbelief expressed by the violin, and the bitterness of the feeling of loss, expressed through a pizzicato* figure!
The last movement is marked by the resolve to overcome sorrow, to look forward to the future, by the marked hope that life goes on and that the deceased has been relieved from a lot of pain. Actually Laub, on the way to a spa in Meran, died a painful death suffering from a sick liver and a failing lung. As much as Tchaikovsky was saddened by his friend’s death, he knew perfectly well one has not to invite dark thoughts into one’s life as they usually come uninvited and tend to stay.
The quartet has been recorded by the Borodin String Quartet.