In 1886, Tchaikovsky was elected an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, for whom he promised a new composition. The new work, a sextet for six string players, did not come to fruition until 1890, shortly after the composer completed his opera The Queen of Spades. The sextet’s title, Souvenir de Florence, is literal: Tchaikovsky sketched the main theme of the second movement while working on the opera in Florence. Otherwise, the work betrays nothing particularly Italian; on the contrary, Souvenir demonstrates the distinct Russian character that, integrated with the Romantic idiom of his German contemporaries, fueled Tchaikovsky’s intensely personal musical voice and has placed him among Western music’s most irresistible composers.
Tchaikovsky confided to the pianist and conductor Aleksandr Siloti that, having just completed such a large-scale work in The Queen of Spades, he worried that he might have thought in overly orchestral terms while conceiving the sextet. The grandeur of Souvenir’s opening measures, blasting off from a powerful dissonance into the hot-blooded theme, validates the composer’s concern; the result, however, is magnificent indeed. (This evening’s concert features Souvenir de Florence, as it is often heard, performed by full string orchestra.) Tchaikovsky marks the second theme dolce, espressivo e cantabile: sweet, expressive, and singing, as the accompaniment figure in the violas and second violins maintains the steady, driving rhythm of the opening melody. After developing this musical idea into a series of fortissimo chords, Tchaikovsky introduces a third melody in the second violas: a gentle serenade, accompanied by pizzicato chords throughout the rest of the ensemble, creating the impression of a strumming guitar.
The slow movement begins with a richly textured, sensuous introduction. Accompanied by pizzicati in the lower strings, the first violins sing a tender lullaby; the second half of the melody takes on a plaintive, Russian-inflected character. After the first violas reprise the opening melody, the movement launches into a contrasting central section: music of a hushed, jittery nervousness, as if over-caffeinated to offset the languor of what came before. When the movement returns to the music of the opening section, the first cello reintroduces the theme, while the upper strings provide a faster sixteenth-note accompaniment, instead of the triplet accompaniment employed at the beginning of the movement.
The Allegretto moderato’s opening section suggests a hearty Russian folk dance. Following the dance, the music embarks on a more contrapuntal section: overlapping entrances by the violins, violas, and cellos in succession lead to a more haughty and festive musical gesture, characterized by forceful rhythms and wide melodic leaps. In this music, we hear indeed the cogency of Tchaikovsky’s mother tongue within the trappings of Brahmsian Romanticism. The movement’s staccato middle section gallops along at a quicker, carefree gait.
The energetic finale begins with a rollicking accompaniment in the violas and second violins, and the first violins introduce a Gypsy-like dance tune. The movement fashions what sounds like simple peasant music into well-crafted contrapuntal passages, demonstrating Tchaikovsky’s dual musical profile as a composer, steeped in his Russian heritage, yet equally facile in Western tradition.
Patrick Castillo ©2014