Skip to main content

The Glasshouse

Home  →  Read, Watch & Listen  →  RNS Sessions: Steffan Morris plays Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile

RNS Sessions: Steffan Morris plays Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile

Cellist Steffan Morris and Royal Northern Sinfonia perform Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, conducted by Chloe Van Soeterstede.

Performed live by Royal Northern Sinfonia with conductor Chloe Van Soeterstede on Friday 6 November 2020 at Sage Gateshead.

About the music

The title, ‘Andante Cantabile’ translates as ‘flowing and song-like’ and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) certainly delivers that through this beautiful and much-loved melody. It was first heard in 1871 as the second movement in Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 in D major, although the haunting song that’s at its heart had a much longer history.

Tchaikovsky was a keen collector of his homeland’s folk songs and, while taking a summer break at his sister’s country estate at Kamenka in 1869, happened to hear a house painter singing one such song, known as Sidel Vanya. The composer wrote down the notation on the spot and included it in his 1869 collection of 50 Russian songs arranged for piano duet. Tchaikovsky was clearly still entranced by its melancholy beauty when he included it in the quartet’s slow movement, weaving into it a new melody of his own creation that is introduced by the first violin.

The quartet, first performed in March 1871, was enthusiastically received, and the second movement received ecstatically. The Andante cantabile was soon to be arranged, by several hands, for an array of instrumental combinations, ranging from one for violin and piano to another for harmonica. Although grateful for its success, even when out of its string quartet context, later in his career Tchaikovsky was often irritated that, whenever his music was played, the Andante cantabile was demanded.

Leo Tolstoy was Tchaikovsky’s guest at an 1876 performance of the quartet and the composer noted that he was ‘never so flattered in my life’ that the famed author of War and Peace ‘dissolved in tears’ listening to the Andante movement. In 1888, Tchaikovsky extended the popularity of the Andante cantabile even more by arranging it for cello and string orchestra.