All three numbered sring quartets were written between 1871-1876, with the 3rd quartet being written in Paris and Moscow early in 1876. The work was dedicated to Tchaikovsky's friend Ferdinand Laub, who played first violin in the premieres of the first two string quartets. Laub had died suddenly in 1875 at 43 years of age.
The quartet was first played a few weeks after its composition at the home of Nikolai Rubinstein's house (who died in 1881 and was the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's piano trio in 1882). It has 4 movements:
II. Allegretto vivo e scherzando - After the long and uneasy first movement, the scherzo brings a welcome contrast. The scherzo itself is restless as it bounces notes from instrument to instrument. The middle section highlights a mellow theme played by the viola. The scherzo returns and after a short coda the movement ends quietly.
III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto - Contrast is provided by a third movement that is not only considerably longer than the previous one, but of a lugubrious character as well. Tchaikovsky creates a sullen mood immediately by the playing of a funeral march.
IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto - A vigorous rondo movement ends the quartet. Themes are reminiscent of Russian folksong, along with a continuation of the overall uneasiness of the previous movements. There is a manic quality to this movement that is halted by the recollection of a fragment of the 1st movement. The manic music picks up where it left off and ends the movement.