Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's Serenade

Updated: Nov 10

By Tim Munro


Friday, November 13, 2020 at 7:30pm

Saturday, November 14, 2020 at 7:30pm

Sunday, November 15, 2020 at 3:00pm

Stéphane Denève, conductor


STRAVINSKY Concerto in E-flat major, "Dumbarton Oaks"

WALKER Lyric for Strings

TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade for Strings


The composers on this program speak quite distinct musical languages, yet the spark for all three pieces is the same: love.

Igor Stravinsky watched as his beloved daughter suffered and died. He found solace in Bach’s music, and “Dumbarton Oaks” is a sort of thank-you note to the older composer.

George Walker wrote his Lyric for Strings after the death of his grandmother. The work has a tender, gentle spirit: a lyrical portrait, a fond farewell.

Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings from what he called “an inner compulsion.” At the time, he was in love with his long-time travel companion. “This is a piece from the heart,” he wrote.

Igor Stravinsky

Born June 17, 1882, Lomonosov, Russia

Died April 6, 1971, New York, New York

Concerto in E-flat major, "Dumbarton Oaks"

“Dumbarton Oaks” emerged from a time of personal pain. Igor Stravinsky watched as his beloved daughter Mika slowly died of tuberculosis. It was “the most difficult time of my life,” he later wrote.

The work was commissioned from a wealthy American couple who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. The couple held regular soirées in the grand music room of their Washington, D.C., residence, Dumbarton Oaks.

While writing the new work, Stravinsky found himself playing Bach each day, perhaps for solace. “I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos,” and the new piece, “Dumbarton Oaks,” was modeled on the spirit and design of Bach’s works.

Stravinsky was, by his own admission, a musical “kleptomaniac.” He stole from Russian folk melodies, 18th century Italian tunes, Rossini operas. “Dumbarton Oaks” sparkles with the fizzing activity of Bach’s Brandenburgs, busy melodies piling one on the other. Like Bach, he alternates full group and solo textures.

But in his hands, this music becomes Stravinsky’s own: full of surprises and delights, always with a glint in its eye. The musicians are pushed to their technical limit, with awkward rhythms, sharp turns, difficult passages.

As glue between the three movements, Stravinsky wrote short moments of transition. If we lean forward during these intimate reflections—which could be tiny hymns—we might see the smallest glimpse of a heart breaking.

First performance: May 8, 1938, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Nadia Boulanger conducting

First SLSO performance, full orchestra version: September 16, 1971, Walter Susskind conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: February 19, 2012, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: Flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 2 basses

Performance time: Approximately 15 minutes

George Walker

Born June 27, 1922, Washington, D.C.

Died August 23, 2018, Montclair, New Jersey

Lyric for Strings

George Walker was a musical giant. Over a career lasting seven decades, Walker wrote music for America’s major orchestras, won the Pulitzer Prize, and created some 90 works in almost every genre.

Walker had to break down many barriers. As a Black man in the overwhelmingly white field of classical music, he experienced discrimination. “But these things were not said [out loud],” Walker said in an interview. “You know the enemy’s out there, but the enemy will not admit it himself.”

He was among the first Black graduates from the Curtis Institute of Music and the doctoral program of the Eastman School of Music, the first Black pianist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Walker’s music reflects a wide range of influences—from Chopin to spirituals to Bach to jazz—but it speaks with its own voice. “My music has never been designed to copy or imitate previous forms,” he said, “but infuse and extend them. It’s an ongoing process of trying to avoid repeating oneself.”

Lyric for Strings, originally called “Lament,” was written after the death of Walker’s grandmother in 1946. Similar to Samuel Barber’s Adagio, Walker’s piece was originally the middle movement of a string quartet, but its popularity prompted Walker to make a version for string orchestra.

First performance: 1946, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Seymour Lipkin conducting

First SLSO performance: March 12, 1993, André Raphel Smith conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: May 28, 2010, Ward Stare conducting

Scoring: Strings

Performance time: Approximately 7 minutes

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Serenade for Strings

The word “serenade” has meant many things over many centuries. The oldest meaning has persisted the longest: music sung to a lover on a moonlit night. Later, it came to refer to a tuneful concert work that may have many movements.

Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Serenade fits into both categories. It is a work filled with easy, joyful moments that leave listeners humming the tunes while dancing out the door. But the work is also a passionate musical love letter to a distant beloved.

“I am on tenterhooks,” writes Tchaikovsky. “Aleksey leaves [for military service] tomorrow, and parting will not be easy. We were both silent because we both wanted terribly to cry. I could scarcely endure this agonizing moment.”

Tchaikovsky and Alyosha (“Aleksey”) Sofronov had traveled together for a decade. Sofranov was Tchaikovsky’s servant, travel companion, friend, pupil, and lover. Their relationship was complex: alongside their unbalanced power dynamic, any gay relationship in 19th century Russia had to remain entirely hidden.

True to form, Tchaikovsky poured all of himself into his music. “To suppress my sad feelings I have been working intensely,” he wrote. The result of this work was the Serenade. “I am passionately in love with this work,” he writes. “I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart.”

Tchaikovsky begins the work with a radiant hymn—straining with full-throated intensity—before a tune of feather-lightness trips around and across the ensemble. After a charming waltz movement, the songful third movement begins with a fragile prayer. In the finale, a spectral hush falls over the group before a rollicking dance lets loose.


First performance: December 3, 1880, at the Moscow Conservatory

First SLSO performance: January 28, 1906, Alfred Ernst conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: June 8, 2001, George Silfies conducting

Scoring: Strings

Performance time: Approximately 28 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.

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