String Quartet No. 1 (Tchaikovsky)

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D major Op. 11 was the first of his three completed string quartets that were published during his lifetime. An earlier attempt had been abandoned after the first movement was completed.[1]

Composed in February 1871, it was premiered in Moscow on 16/28 March 1871 by four members of the Russian Musical Society: Ferdinand Laub and Ludvig Minkus, violins; Pryanishnikov, viola; and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, cello.[2] Tchaikovsky arranged the second movement for cello and string orchestra in 1888.


The quartet has four movements:

  1. Moderato e semplice (D major)
  2. Andante cantabile (B major)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro non tanto e con fuoco – Trio (D minor)
  4. Finale. Allegro giusto – Allegro vivace (D major)

Second movement - Andante cantabile[edit]

The melancholic second movement, which has become famous in its own right, was based on a folk song the composer heard at his sister's house at Kamenka[3][4] whistled by a house painter.[5]

Leo Tolstoy[edit]

When the quartet was performed at a tribute concert for Leo Tolstoy, the author was said to have been brought to tears by this movement: “…Tolstoy, sitting next to me and listening to the Andante of my First Quartet, burst into tears".[6][7]

Helen Keller[edit]

When the Zoellner Quartet, at her request, performed the second movement for Helen Keller, who rested her fingertips on a resonant tabletop to sense the vibrations, she, too, reacted strongly.[8] She quickly sensed the musical vibrations, swaying in time, alternately crying and smiling.[9] Afterward, Keller reacted as follows:[8]

When you play to me I see and hear and feel many things that I cannot easily put into words. I feel the sweep and surge and mighty pulse of life. Oh, you are masters of a wondrous art, subtle and superfine. When you play to me immediately a miracle is wrought, sight is given the blind, and deaf ears hear sweet, strange sounds.

Each note is a picture, a fragrance, the flash of a wing, a lovely girl with pearls in her hair, a group of exquisite children dancing and swinging garlands of flowers—a bright mingling of colors and twinkling feet. There are notes that laugh and kiss and sigh and melt together. And notes that weep and rage and fly apart like shattered crystal.

But mostly the violins sing of lovely things—woods and streams and sun-kissed hills, the faint sound of tiny creatures flitting about in the grass and under the petals of the flowers, the noiseless stirring of shadows in my garden, and the soft breathings of shy things that light on my hand for an instant, or touch my hair with their wings. O, yes! and a thousand, thousand other things that I cannot describe come thronging through my soul when the Zoellner Quartet plays to me.

Other occurrences[edit]

The melody from second theme of the Andante cantabile, in D major, was used as the basis for the popular song "On the Isle of May", popularized by Connee Boswell in 1940. This movement ends with plagal cadence.


  1. ^ Langston, Brett (ed.). "Tchaikovsky Research: String Quartet in B-flat major". Tchaikovsky Research. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  2. ^ John Warrack, Tchaikovsky, p. 275
  3. ^ Catherine Steinegger's Notes to Recording of Keller Quartet (Erato, 2292-45965-2) states: ‘Based on a folksong which the composer had heard at Kamenka, while he was staying with his sister’
  4. ^ André Lischke's Notes to Recording of Quatuor du Moscou (CDM, RUS 288 101) states: ‘…Russian folk tune that Tchaikovsky had noted down in 1869, well before the composition of the Quartet’
  5. ^ Kashkine's Recollections of Tchaikovsky The Musical Times Vol. 38, No. 653 (Jul. 1, 1897), pp. 449-452 "... the Russian song, forming the first theme, was written down from the voice of a plasterer who had awakened him with his singing on several consecutive mornings..."
  6. ^ Alexandra Orlova: Tchaikovsky, a self-portrait quotes this as originating from “Diaries, 211” OUP, 1990, ISBN 0-19-315319-X
  7. ^ Galina von Meck (with notes by Percy M Young) An Autobiography of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Letters to his Family also mentions this in the footnote to Letter 131 (Alexandra Davydova, 8/11/1876, Moscow) Stein & Day 1973/1981/1982 ISBN 0-8128-6167-1
  8. ^ a b Scrapbook clipping attributed to Musician, Volume 22, April 1917, page 303, accessed June 4, 2012.
  9. ^ "First Number Citizens Lecture Course Monday, November Fifth,"The Weekly Spectrum Archived 2013-11-10 at the Wayback Machine, North Dakota Agricultural College, Volume XXXVI no. 3, November 7, 1917.

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