Pyotr Tchaikovsky's first string quartet contains 'succulent' melodies.
Played by the Borodin Quartet at their Chamber Music New Zealand concert in Auckland Town Hall, 16 September 2018.
In 1871, Tchaikovsky was 6 years into his appointment as a founding teacher at the Moscow Conservatory and was relatively unknown at home and abroad. He was also scraping by on a small salary. The idea of a concert at the Conservatory with a programme of only his work appealed as a chance to create some reputational waves and also, if a success, bring in some much-needed cash.
He simply couldn't afford an orchestra but to give some variety he knew he needed works other than piano solos or violin and piano sonatas. Fortunately, friends stepped up and the services of the Russian Musical Society Quartet were offered, with no charge attached.
The concert was a hit with one critic raving:
'Tchaikovsky's compositions revealed a rich and sympathetic talent. The String Quartet was distinguished by the same delightfully succulent melodies, beautifully and interestingly harmonised, the same mobility of tone - so foreign to the commonplace - the same softness, to which we have become accustomed in this gifted composer.'
Writing to his patron several years later, Tchaikovsky said of those 'succulent' melodies:
'...[the] affinity with the folk songs in some of my melodies and harmonies comes from my having spent my childhood in the country and, from my earliest years, having been filled with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk music. I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.'
While the themes of the quartet may hint at that affection for Russian folk tunes, they are his own – with the exception of one. Tchaikovsky heard and annotated the main theme of the famous second movement at the family estate, Kamenka, where it was apparently whistled by either a painter, a gardener or a carpenter – depending on which version of the story you like best.
It's a tune called 'Vanya sat on the divan and smoked a pipe of tobacco' or, in another more exciting translation 'Vanya one night sat sadly on the divan, a glass of rum in his hand, to drown his sorrows and forget tomorrow.'
Recorded in Auckland Town Hall, 16 September 2018 by RNZ Concert
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay