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Friday 9 December 2016

A master of rhythm and the irresistible melody . . .

Published 11/06/2011 | 05:00

There's something about dance music that immediately draws you in. Whether it's a Strauss waltz or a Mozart minuet, or even the frenzied madness of Khachaturian's 'Sabre Dance', the rhythm is the thing. Add in an irresistible melody, and you're on to a winner.

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It'll hardly be a surprise that one of the most enduring of dance pieces came from a man who not only displayed an amazing gift for melody, but was also one of the most prolific and highly regarded composers for the ballet.

The man is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the piece in question is the second movement of what was a homage to his musical hero, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's the waltz from Tchaikovsky's 'Serenade for Strings'.

It's gloriously rich and romantic, a tune that rides its magic carpet of swirling violins to perfection. Violins and the rest, for this one needs a full complement of violas and cello and double basses.

On its own, and thanks to the beautiful simplicity of its musical message, the waltz has become a staple of the concert hall, a regular on the first half of the bill, and an ever-popular feature on classical radio shows. But it's only part of a bigger story.

Tchaikovsky's 'Serenade for Strings' -- composed in the uncomplicated key of C major, which made for a straightforward piano duet arrangement that was published alongside the full score -- has the classical structure of four movements.

The waltz is simply Tchaikovsky updating the minuet that would have featured in the works by Mozart that he was seeking to emulate (think of 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'). Its delights are echoed elsewhere, right across the piece, with attractive allusions to Russian folk songs and dances.

At the same time as this was all coming together, Tchaikovsky was working on a piece that would become his signature tune.

The '1812 Overture', he knew, would be a crowd pleaser, but he derided it as having no artistic merit because it was written "without warmth and without love".

Not so the 'Serenade', which he said was "composed from an innate impulse". He wrote to his sponsor: "I am violently in love with this work and cannot wait for it to be played." His public had been happy ever since.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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