“Serenades for Strings” In Honor of Mozart at the University Concert

I attended the Clemson University Symphony Orchestra on November 17th, 2018. The concert was extremely diverse, and I gained a new appreciation for listening to a live symphony orchestra. Due to my background in ballet, the first piece that attracted my attention was Tchaikovsky’s “Elegy” from Serenade for Strings. This is the third out of a four-movement piece. The Serenade is known to be written with his idol, Mozart, in mind as seen through the use of a multi-movement, melody-rich genre that Mozart seemed to have perfected in his early Salzburg years. Tchaikovsky’s orchestration choice of violins, violas, cellos, and basses also suggests a Mozartian angle. The Classical serenade typically called for a mix of strings, woodwinds, and possibly brass, however, Mozart’s most well-known serenade, A Little Night Music, was cast for just strings alone. Although the title and structure of the piece may seem to be based on past serenades, particularly Mozart’s, Tchaikovsky successfully includes his own style and 19th century structure to the piece.

It seems as if Tchaikovsky wanted the composition of the work to fall between a symphony and a string quintet; while being personal as his other symphonies and intimate as his chamber music. He captured these characteristics by creating a direct, emotional and extremely lyrical writing. An elegy is defined as a poem of serious reflection, and Tchaikovsky captures that idea by creating this third movement into seeming to be a reflective and inward-looking piece. It is built upon a simple A-B-A structure with a 2/4 meter throughout. The outer, the beginning and ending sections, have a darker mood that is lightened somewhat in the more middle section. C major is the key center for most of the piece. Traditional orchestral timbre is utilized, including dynamic variations throughout the ranges of the instruments. The soft dissonant beginning is very beautiful and throughout, demonstrating Tchaikovsky’s skill and creativity for string sonorities. The movement seems just as danceable as a waltz would be once the violins start their main theme. The harmony is robust and haunting, successfully supporting the gloomy melodies heard above. Suggesting back to the opening material, the entire orchestra is muted to produce a delicate and obscure tone. In the coda, the proceedings climb purposefully up to a peaceful harmony as the dynamics gradually reach their softest point of expression. The end of the movement, proving to be the most touching for me, creates a “fading out” sensation as the strings move from normally-played notes to harmonics, recreating a light yet haunting feeling in the theater.

This particular piece caught my attention due to its high ties to the ballet community. George Balanchine’s chorography to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings is performed several dozen times a year by professional companies, university programs, and ballet schools all over the world. The movement’s cheerful waves of sound are joined with hints of melancholy melodies to create an abundance of relatable human emotion. The music offers so much movement for the dancers to follow. The piece although somewhat restrained for Tchaikovsky, is still emotionally direct at the same time, and has the perfect blend of the neo-classical and the Russian character. Serenade for Strings, in many ways, acts as a metaphor of Balanchine’s life goals with the Ballet. Throughout his life, and with determination and a clear vision Balanchine seized new opportunities and successfully brought ballet to America. Similarly, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings is a look into a composer life by sharing his deepest emotions and passions through the use of music. Overall, the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade of Strings utilizes varying musical elements to create an emotional and haunting but yet still appealing piece that that makes me wish to dance ballet again. The movement reflects Tchaikovsky’s fascination with the classical composer, Mozart, through his ability to recreate and synthesize Mozart’s style with his own.

The second movement I decided to analyze would be the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 also known as the Scottish Symphony. Mendelssohn began sketching the Scottish Symphony in 1829. In 1831, he stopped work on the score for a decade, and the symphony was not completed until 1842. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The performance time is approximately forty-three minutes. As can be heard through the piece’s musical elements, this work displays young Mendelssohn’s deep and emotional state of being stemming straight from Scottish landscape and history. Mendelssohn himself once clarified his true inspiration for the symphony was in fact in the ruins and natural surroundings of Scotland. It is also said that Mendelssohn wrote the symphony with Mary Queen of Scots in mind and therefore based off the slow and somewhat reserved introduction, Mendelssohn must have had a very fond and somewhat delicate feelings towards her.

Beginning with a very slow, restrained, and Haydn-like introduction, the Andante con moto, a subdued mood is created with the growth of the sound of woodwinds accompanied by the violas. Unlike most other Classical or Romantic symphonies, Mendelssohn holds back incorporating the violins until later. The body of the movement in sonata form, begins with a new tempo and meter of 6/8, which maintains a sense of urgency and drama by elaborating off the melody of the Andante. The first movement continues on with the long main theme of pianissimo on violins and the clarinet. The development section is concise and effective. A relaxing and calm transition begins with a fugue-like texture and a somber theme in the dominant key of A minor to the extend the melancholy mood further through the piece. When the cellos are given center stage and begin a broad new melody with the accompaniment of the scattering of chords, a moment of radiance occurs creating a counterpoint to the main theme that carries into the recapitulation. The recapitulation depicts what seems an extremely vivid and pictorial ferocious storm-sequence with the strength from the timpani and low strings from the violins. After the recapitulation, a coda with the force of a second development section is concluded by a return of the ominous theme of the introduction.