Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings
I remember first hearing this work as a child, and being immediately enraptured by those thick opening chords. There is something so homely and hugging about the sound of strings sustained by players as if their lives depended on it.
In his instructions, Tchaikovsky basically said ‘the more instruments the better’, but even with a modest ensemble the sound is grand and manifold. He asks the players to double-stop (play many strings at once) and as five voices multiply to play sixteen notes the resulting chords tower up.
Written in 1880, the Serenade looks back a further 100 or so years, pastiching the style of Mozart, amongst others. Tchaikovsky was stylistically fluid in his output, even incorporating folk song (a trait that would go on to dominate Russian music), but he referred back to classical styles throughout his life.
The second movement, Valse, is pure sugar plum fairy cake. The Serenade came between two of Tchaikovsky’s big ballet hits, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, and it’s full of Viennese swirl and ‘oom-pah-pah’ bounce. But after such romance and glamour the third movement begins like a hymn played in hushed reverence, before aching, striving melodies rise up and up. The final movement sees the return of the clinging opening theme, which paves the way home.
It’s both silly and serious, and totally thrilling.
Peter Warlock – Capriol Suite
Another work that shamelessly looks back to a bygone era, this time the Renaissance, and reinvents it to foot-stomping effect.
Peter Warlock himself was a funny character. Born Philip Arnold Heseltine, he had a great interest in the occult (hence his choice of adopted surname), held raucous parties, and shocked Gloucestershire villagers by riding a motorcycle in the nude.
Capriol Suite is similarly quite the romp. Based on melodies found in Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie, a manual of French dances published in 1589, Warlock takes a very simple rhythm or melody as his starting point, adding jagged cross-rhythms and fruity harmonic clashes to create a vivid musical scene. It all comes to a head with a Sword Dance. It’s only a minute long, but I defy you not to be up and dancing by the end.
Warlock originally wrote the suite for piano duet, but such was its popularity he arranged it for string orchestra and full orchestra. The recommended recording below is for strings, with some added sprinkles from a harpsichord, but like the Tchaikovsky, it’s the rich earthy string sound that is so invigorating.