The young Tchaikovsky, barely surviving on his meager salary from the Moscow Conservatory, decided to raise a little money and call attention to his work in early 1871 by presenting a concert of recent compositions. The program was a great success; it consisted of several songs and piano pieces, and, written especially for the occasion, the String Quartet No. 1.
The first movement, Moderato e semplice, takes traditional sonata form and features a fuller, richer development than Tchaikovsky generally had managed. The two songlike main themes are similar rhythmically and atmospherically, although the first is more anticipatory and the second is more of an outright serenade.
The second movement, Andante cantabile, is one of this composer's most beloved creations and is often heard arranged for string orchestra as well as for any number of instrumental combinations. The first melody is a simple, melancholy folk song that Tchaikovsky is said to have learned from a carpenter in Kamenka. The second is original, very much a ballad initially sung by the first violin over the cello's descending, chromatic pizzicato notes.
The scherzo, Allegro non tanto e con fuoco, is launched with a forceful theme that nevertheless skips to an almost dancelike rhythm. The movement's trio section is more frolicsome, but carries a harmonic tension that keeps it in line with the earlier material. The finale, Allegro giusto, unravels and re-weaves two themes. The first is much brighter and more celebratory than anything that has come before; the second, introduced by the viola, is lyrical and Russian, and its B flat tonality makes an arresting contrast with the D major material it follows.
Tchaikovsky would write two further string quartets (and a one-movement student piece has also survived), but for most music lovers this Opus 11 work is the Tchaikovsky quartet, as melodic and emotive as the composer's popular orchestral scores.