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Souvenir de Florence Op.70

Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Souvenir de Florence Op.70

As early as June 1887 Tchaikovsky made a start on a string sextet for the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society (which had requested a work the preceding October), but he gave it up after a few days. He was not to return to the medium until the early months of 1890 when, while living in Florence and deeply involved with his opera The Queen of Spades, he wrote down the melody that was to become the main theme of the slow movement. This fact alone (and no further programmatic connotation) inspired the title of the finished composition.

Tchaikovsky finished the opera on June 20th, and five days later began serious work on the Sextet. He was concerned about the medium, a new one for him, and particularly about the question whether he might not be conceiving music that demanded an orchestra, and then reducing it to six strings. By the time he finished his sketch on July 12th, his view of the piece had begun to improve. But he still worried about the scoring as he worked out the final details, which were completed by August 6th. Neither the composer nor his closest friends were entirely happy with the third and fourth movements at a private performance in December, Tchaikovsky set the Sextet aside for a year, then made major revisions to the last two movements and a small adjustment to the first movement, resulting in the form in which we know the piece.

The Sextet is one of Tchaikovsky’s last multi-movement instrumental works (only the sixth symphony followed) and the last in which he retained the traditional patterns of abstract symphonic form. He worked out a splendidly detailed sonata-form exposition for the first movement, in which the transition grows out of a three-note figure that appears in the main theme and then continues under the surprising shy entrance of the second theme in the first violin. Although formal structure was always something of a struggle for Tchaikovsky, this exposition clearly demonstrates his hard-won mastery over the years.

The slow movement is among the most purely personal passages in Tchaikovsky’s output, and the one place in the score where his love of melodic lines laid out as a duet, intertwining, mutually complementary, comes to full flower. The third movement takes a melody of a Slavonic folkish cast and puts it through its paces, alternating two different version with varied textures and accompaniments.

For the finale, the composer offers another sonata form movement based on a dancing theme of Slavonic imprint, varied with two sections of vigorous contrapuntal development. In writing for the mostly German membership of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, Tchaikovsky knew that he would be expected to offer some display of his ability at counterpoint, and he obliged with these two passages, the second of which becomes a full-scale fugato leading to a wildly sonorous close.

Steven Ledbetter

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