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A Meditation on Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Mar 14, 2012 10:53:00 AM

Spring sunrise resized 600

As the warmth of spring begins to emerge again from the snow, I sat in the sunshine, breathed the fragrant but brisk air, and wondered what piece is most evocative of this time of year. There is, of course, Vivaldi’s “Spring” from the Four Seasons. We have Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata. And, on a more contemporary note, we have Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. But, I thought, none of these pieces quite encapsulate my understanding of spring – a time of promise, of rebirth, of simple joy and triumph. But then I thought of Tchaikovsky, and as I recalled his Serenade for Strings, I knew that the spring bird had alighted on one of her greatest expressions. 

Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece of the late Romantic era is much more than one of the staples of the string orchestra repertoire. I see it as a profound expression of the joy, light, and triumph that transform the human condition. Tchaikovsky -- crafting a serenade in homage of Mozart, his favorite composer and idol -- utilizes a cyclical model of composition to great romantic effect. The piece both begins and ends with a grand, C-major proclamation; the scalar model of this noble melody pervades each movement in an individual and unique way. Of particular pathos is the way that the descending scalar motive is used in transition between the Elegie and the Finale: at first reflective and nostalgic, the motive becomes hopeful and then is set free in a boisterous and joyful dance. And at the end of the Finale, the “Russian theme” transforms back into the opening motive and the opening motive is transformed back into the Russian dance. The themes have become one and the same, and in the intertwining, the triumph is doubly expressed through the combination of the joy and the stateliness, the dance and the reverence. In all things, one.

This, to me, is the message of spring. Even in the midst of winter, with all of its frigid bluster, we hopefully await spring. Perhaps it will be sooner, perhaps it will be later, but with all the inevitability of the major scale so artistically employed in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, we know that spring will come nonetheless. And so we live, from promise unto promise, through the mist into the clarity, from the snow unto the springtime. In all things, then, should we not rejoice, as we journey from glory into glory?

We might do well, I think, to view our lives through the lens of the Serenade. We can acknowledge the grief and despair of the Sixth Symphony, but that does not have to be the final word – it is a season. It too will pass, if we allow it. Let us color our lives with joy, with the shining gold of C major, and dance in the triumph that is already accorded to us with such great and glorious simplicity.

Topics: Mozart, Classical Music, Music History, Strings, Tchaikovsky