We’re ditching the music, storing the iPads, and committing one of Tchaikovsky’s best-loved pieces to memory for these unique performances.
More than just an impressive feat of memory, we want to see how this move effects audiences experience of this searing, heartfelt piece of music.
Will this aid communication between players? Between players and audience? Will it enable even those who know the piece inside out to experience it in a new way? There is only one way to find out – by being there.
The richness of the Tchaikovsky is complimented by Elgar’s passionate Introduction and Allegro and Caroline Shaw’s Punctum, full of clean zesty melody, acting as an aural refresher between.
- Edward Elgar
Introduction and Allegro
- Caroline Shaw
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings (memorised)
Notes on the Music
By Rosie Davies
There’s a lovely story around the inspiration for Elgar’s second significant orchestral work for strings. Holidaying in Wales in 1901, the composer writes how he overheard singing in the distance, tunes which he believed captured something inherently Welsh in their expression. Into his notebook they went, emerging four years later as one of the main themes in his Introduction and Allegro (see if you can guess which it is).
The more prosaic background is that the piece was written for the newly- formed London Symphony Orchestra, something that would really show off its strings section – a celebration of virtuosity and skill that’s perhaps more immediately identifiable than its whisper of the Welsh hills.
Whilst choosing a form originating centuries earlier – the concerto grosso, in which the music passes between a group of soloists and the orchestra – Elgar’s approach is modern; eschewing the stark lines or showy moments of his Baroque predecessors, his string quartet instead feels like a rooted, integral part of the landscape. Alternately weaving between, nuzzling against, dashing out from and vibrating in togetherness with the heft of the orchestra, we journey through an exhilarating unfolding of temperaments – nostalgic lyricism, soaring adventure, and a skittish excitement which propels us towards its celebratory end.
The idea of ‘punctum’ comes from renowned essayist and theorist Roland Barthes. Summed up very crudely (it’s a complex and much-debated topic, which those interested in photography may wish to explore), it refers to the unexpected, entirely subjective effects of a piece of art – in Barthes’ case, a photograph – on the observer: “[the] element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.”
This intriguing idea is the inspiration for Shaw’s tapestry of moments; an exploration of expectation and disruption, communal and personal, familiarity and surprise. “A particular secondary dominant” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is our centre of gravity, but, along with other comforting musical intervals and harmonic progressions, it is strung out, splintered, fragmented, dissolving and reemerging like memories. In denying us of their usual familiarity and patterns, what “shoots out” to pierce us forms a wholly personal sonic photograph of our own.
With its lush sonority, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings has become one of the staples of the Romantic string repertoire – but it was in fact a nod to a previous era, borrowing the serenade structure crafted by one of his idols, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However – those sentiment-laden opening bars feel almost like a statement of intention: whilst nodding to a hero structurally, Tchaikovsky’s was to be stylistically his own, infused with a distinctive complexity and depth of emotion.
One of the most enduring features of the Serenade is its generous, two-for-one offer: four tonally different pieces that both stand alone, and link together as a cohesive whole. Of course, in any piece, this is something we could only logically appreciate after it’s ended, but Tchaikovsky somehow intensifies this experience with a moment in the final movement that, despite repeated listening, is so welcome, so satisfying, that it never fails to bring a light-bulb moment of joy, as if answering a question we didn’t realise we had. Yes, we bob through an elegant waltz, revel in lyrical, reflective beauty, and whirl through exhilarating Russian folk dances – but when we arrive back at the restorative resonance of the chorale where we began, we understand we were always going to return home.
But, back to the first movement, where we don’t know that yet – after the slow chorale, in which the strings play in thick, glorious togetherness, we shift into passages of muscular drama and perpetual energy. There is so much going on here – the first theme, with the cellos being put through their paces, providing a quick- noted, tense undercurrent to the upper strings’ repeated two-note refrain, constantly leading us on; then the non- stop cascades of the second theme, tripping up and down, only to fall back to the start, as if circling round and round, without getting anywhere. And then, almost as a teasing, miniature echo of what to expect in the final movement, we find ourselves back at the chorale.
Guided by Mozart, the second movement is the dance movement – but, instead of the expected Minuet, Tchaikovsky yet again makes it his own by offering a waltz that, beneath its elegant, dancing lightness, hides expertly- crafted harmonic shifts. The light-as-air, graceful melodies of the upper strings are pulled taut by this very subtle sense of jeopardy, a threat of complexity, beneath the surface, beautifully complemented by the gentle falling out of time created by extended pauses.
The third movement offers yet another shift in tone, drenched in dark lyricism and sublime melancholy which pulls us in to its sound world and holds us there. After the rich earthiness of the movement, the ending surprises us again; as the churning emotion smoothes into a calm resolution, the strings move higher and higher until they become harmonics, fading out on a sheer, ethereal shimmer of light, evoking something altogether more heavenly and spiritual.
From this same light, the final movement emerges, with a soft, calm passage inspired by a Russian folk melody that, in retrospect, feels like a mirage – because, suddenly, everything shifts, and we find ourselves breathlessly whisked away in an exhilarating, joyful, quick-footed romp inspired by melodies from Russian folk dances, in beautiful contrast to the stately, measured delicacy of our previous waltzing. And so we whirl forwards, faster and faster, hurtling towards the most powerful moment of the entire piece, in which the dance dissolves, seamlessly, gorgeously, into the opening chorale – somehow richer, enhanced, more significant.
The final, delicious twist is that we don’t end here. The chorale seems to get stuck on one of the notes, getting faster, and faster, before bursting into a spirited rush to a celebratory end before we know what’s happening. All that’s left is for us to sit back and reflect on the quite astonishing journey we’ve just been on.
Jonathan Morton, Eva Þórarinsdóttir, Daniel Pioro, Cheryl Crockett, Roberto Ruisi, Juliette Roos
- Violin 2
Kate Suthers, Joanne Green, Laura Ghiro, Dave Shaw, George Smith
Jane Atkins, Dorothea Vogel, Andrew Berridge, Kathryn Jourdan, Zoe Matthews
Alison Lawrence, Naomi Pavri, Duncan Strachan
- Double Bass
Resources & Downloads
Tchaikovsky by Heart - Programme577.57 KB