In 1886, when the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary membership, he promised to write a new work for them, but it ended up taking six years and many course corrections for such a score to be ready. By 1887 he had decided to fashion a string sextet, a format that had been popularized by Brahms and subsequently adopted by Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russians. That summer, a few days after making his first sketches on the sextet, Tchaikovsky lamented, “Because I have only a passing desire to compose, I’m beginning to fear that I am losing my powers of composition, and becoming angry with myself.”
The sextet sat dormant until 1890. Upon resuming the work, Tchaikovsky wrote to a fellow composer that he found it “terribly difficult working in this new form; it seems that rather than writing for six voices, I am, in essence, composing for the orchestra, and only then arranging it for six string instruments.” He arranged for a private performance that winter, after which he declared a desire to “radically alter the string sextet, which turned out to be astonishingly bad in all respects.”
Tchaikovsky worked on the revision during the winter of 1891-92, executing much of it during a few quiet weeks in Paris. He gave the finished sextet the title Souvenir de Florence, a tribute to the city where, early in 1890, he jotted down the melody that would become the basis of the slow movement.
The abundant gift for melody that served Tchaikovsky so well in his operas and ballets did not always prove to be an asset in his abstract, instrumental works. It was only in his final years that he found total fluency in genres that were the more natural terrain of composers like Beethoven and Brahms. Souvenir de Florence, Tchaikovsky’s last work of chamber music (coming a full decade after the previous example, a piano trio), reached that rare level of mastery; it stands with the Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) at the pinnacle of Tchaikovsky’s formal craft.
Souvenir de Florence makes an arresting entrance, launching immediately into a melody that starts with an unstable harmony and a crunchy four-note chord attacked fortissimo by the first violin. This fast and spirited opening movement in the key of D minor turns out to be more frisky than fierce, maintaining a dance-like lift in its three-beat pulse.
After a tapering introduction, the slow movement presents the Florence-born theme, played dolce cantabile (sweet and singing) by the first violin over effervescent plucking, a texture that approximates the character of an Italian mandolin or guitar accompanying a love serenade. In a letter to his contact at the Chamber Music Society, Tchaikovsky wrote that this movement should be “played with great fire and passion.”
Traces of folksong color the third movement scherzo as well as the lively finale. Tchaikovsky used the full resources of the sextet to craft these themes into more than just memorable tunes, amassing rustic textures and sophisticated layers of counterpoint on the way to a thrilling conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2017
About This Program
Delight in the musical journey of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet as it ebbs, flows and positively glows! It is said that Charles Villier Stanford once remarked to his students that, after the brilliance of the Clarinet Quintet by Johannes Brahms, no one would be able to compose another clarinet quintet that did not mimic Brahms’ style. The young Coleridge-Taylor quickly accepted this challenge and undoubtedly succeeded. Reflective and at times somber, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence stirs the heart with hope, offering a fitting close for this program.