Teresa Carreño’s Serenade for String Orchestra

Teresa Carreño finished the composition of her Serenade for String Orchestra on September 13, 1895 during a summer stay in Pertisau, a small village located on the Archensee Lake of the Austrian Tyrol. She visited Pertisau for the purpose of resting from her busy concert touring engagements while meeting with a group of piano students who had traveled from Europe and the Americas to attend her master classes. On a personal level, the last months had been particularly difficult for Carreño. She was in the midst of a contested divorce from Eugène d’Albert, the renowned English-German pianist who she had married in 1891. Yet, despite these difficult circumstances, that summer proved to be particularly productive for her as a composer. In fact, after several years of being completely devoted to consolidating her career as a concert pianist in Europe, Carreño resumed her interest in composition with two major works, a String Quartet in B minor and a Serenade in Eb major.

By this time, Teresa Carreño had ample experience in music composition. She had begun to compose at the age of six as part of her musical training in her native city of Caracas, Venezuela. Born in 1853 to a family of prominent musicians and intellectuals, the young girl received a thorough education at home and the support necessary to embark at the age of eight on an international career as a piano prodigy. Her compositional skills flourished alongside her abilities as virtuoso pianist, so that her works occupied an important place in her concert activities in the Americas and Europe during her youth. Before turning twenty, Carreño had already produced a considerable output of music consisting of over thirty opus numbers for the piano, mostly in the genres of salon dances, fantasies, and études in the brilliant style. Some of these were published by Ditson in Boston and Heugel in Paris. Nonetheless, during the 1870s and 1880s Teresa Carreño significantly reduced the pace of her composing; her duties as a mother, along with exhausting concert touring itineraries across North America and the financial struggle that resulted from her failing ventures as impresario of her own concert and opera company, left little time for composition.

Teresa Carreño

In 1889, Carreño began a new phase in her career when she moved to Berlin, which opened unprecedented professional possibilities for her. Not only did she reorganize her touring career around the most important concert venues and orchestras in Europe, which rapidly cast her among the foremost pianists of that time, but she also had the opportunity of immersing herself in an extraordinarily rich musical environment. It is possible indeed that Carreño’s decision of taking up composition again with two large-scale chamber works, the String Quartet and the Serenade, was the natural response to this stimulus, driven either by her intention to take refuge in composition from the painful episode of her divorce, or to demonstrate her worth as a serious composer outside of her reputation as a virtuoso pianist.

Carreño’s Serenade belongs to the tradition of serenades for string ensemble that can be traced back to well-known works such as Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 (1787), Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade in E major, Op. 22 (1875), and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major, op. 48 (1880). The genre was established past the mid-18th century as a multi-movement work of a light character, meant to be performed in outdoor celebrations, and scored for a small ensemble of winds and strings, though later settings for strings only also became common. Formal conventions of the Classical serenade included the use of an opening sonata-allegro movement, two slow movements in alternation with minuets, and a fast closing movement, frequently in a march-like rhythm. During the 19th century the serenade maintained the multi-movement layout but acquired a more sophisticated character, becoming a concert piece akin to the suite and the symphony in its formal design and instrumentation.

Carreño’s Serenade is a profound yet flowing and compelling composition. Its overall sonority and poetic eloquence has many affinities with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major, which could have served her as a reference. Nonetheless, Carreño offers a very personal point of view. She chose the reduced resource of a string orchestra as well as other stylistic elements that are distinctive of the Classical serenade. At the same time, she approached these by means of a bold romantic language that gives preeminence to musical expression and harmonic exploration over pre-established rules of formal construction. Carreño’s free-spirited reinterpretation of the conventions of the genre resulted in a remarkably coherent and transparent work. Her ingenious melodic treatment, her mastery of chromatic modulatory techniques, and her skillful use of variation principle to avoid thematic monotony through the addition of countermelodies, changes of instrumentation, harmony, etc., as well as her continuous interpretative indications for the performers undoubtedly make the Serenade a notable compositional achievement.

The Serenade opens with a dramatic Andante-Andante con motto that loosely resembles the early Classical mono-thematic sonata. It starts with an introduction in Eb major that gives way to the main theme in the minor mode, which is not developed. After a modulatory transition, the introductory theme returns, though in an abbreviated form. The movement ends with the recapitulation of the main theme in the major mode. The second movement is a Scherzo in G minor marked as Allegro vivace. It preserves the humorousness associated with the scherzi but delivered in a particularly intense manner because of the choice of the minor mode. This is certainly the movement that most closely conforms to formal conventions, as it adopts the ternary form characteristic of the scherzo. The third movement is a passionate Andantino-Agitato molto in G major that features two enthralling solos: an opening recitative for the cello and a shorter duet for the cello and the violin at the end of the middle section. The steady use of chromaticism throughout the piece in combination with the vocal-like treatment of the solos bring out an operatic effect that serves as a climactic point for the whole work. The closing movement, titled Tempo di Marcia, is a forceful piece constructed around the idea of using sharp tonal contrasts. Because of the use of two main themes and the notion of tonal contrast as a structural principle, this final movement seemingly follows the sonata-allegro form. However, the deliberate substitution of developmental techniques for those of variation results in a sui generis approach to this form. After an introduction, the first theme is presented in Eb minor. It is followed by the presentation of the second theme, in the remote key of A major. In the recapitulation, the first theme is restated in Eb minor to modulate later to E major. This change to a major tonality makes the first theme closer in character to the second, which is now in Eb major, thus representing perhaps a conclusive synthesis of the two themes.

Little is known about Teresa Carreño’s intentions to present her Serenade to the public. The work was apparently never performed in concert during her lifetime, and neither was it revised for publication. The only version known to date of this composition is a holograph draft with the German title, Serenade für Streich Orchester, which currently belongs to the Teresa Carreño Papers held at the Special Collections Library of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The manuscript consists of thirty-three folios with numerous marginal notes, cross-outs, corrections, and insertions. Sections with notations of her String Quartet in B minor are also interspersed. Although the music is complete, the roughness of the manuscript made the process of music revision particularly challenging. The preparation of this edition of the Carreño Serenade (for Cayambis Music Press) has been aimed at making it available to performers and audiences as an effective and enticing work that has been unduly forgotten for over a century.

Laura Pita and Juan Francisco Sans

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