If you have sensitive ears, don’t bother to read on. Don’t bother to listen to this terrific piece of music: “Souvenir de Florence” in D minor, Op. 70. Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote this sextet in 1890 and he didn’t write it for weenies. The strings do all the complaining by themselves. Are you still around? I take it you are brave. You shall be rewarded. The reason I bother about this piece is the fact that a) it is deeply Romantic (Italy!), b) it stirs me up emotionally (Italy!), c) it has magnificent serenade like sections (Italy!) and d) it expresses this bitter-sweet melancholy that only Franz Schubert’s string quartets (Vienna!) can conjure. Got it? I love it.
Tchaikovsky at work
So did the composer. Tchaikovsky would not be Tchaikovsky if at the beginning he hadn’t been a little weenie himself: “One needs six independent and homogenous voices. It is incredibly difficult”, he confided to his brother Modest. He had started to write the sextet in 1887, after he had been elected honorary member of the St. Petersburg Music Society. The piece was to be dedicated to that association. He became stuck and let the matter rest until June 1890, when he wrote the quoted lines to Modest. He had just returned from a stay in Florence. By the end of the month he was done.
That’s just typical for this man: He has a brilliant idea, he doesn’t really follow-up on it, things drag on, than he remembers that he had a brilliant idea, a little moaning, a little self-pity and then, within a few days, he’s done. Bingo. And then he is so proud! “Ah Modia, what a sextet I managed to write!” he tells his brother in July 1890. “And what a fugue in the finale, a real miracle!” Two years later however, during a stay in Paris, Tchaikovsky partially rewrote the piece. The end of the first movement, the central part of the third movement, the second theme and the fugue of the finale – nothing remained the same.
Furthermore Tchaikovsky gave precise instructions to anyone daring to perform the piece. “The first movement must be played with a lot of fire and engagement. The second like the players were singing. The third – mischievously, the fourth joyfully and with emphasis.” Well then.
A waltz, a serenade, a tonal torrent
For the audience, the introduction of the first movement may be challenging, but you will quickly be stirred up by the rhythm (with fire!) and become enchanted by the theme that comes close to a waltz. The second movement, the most “Italian” as Tchaikovsky’s biographer André Lischke puts it, has a few surprises. Its main motive is a plaintive, melancholic serenade-like theme with delicate pizzicati* and a dramatic endpoint. The middle section of that movement is a contrasting figure of short, rapidly played notes. Tchaikovsky said “it must be played like a far away lightning.” Furthermore the players no longer explore the upper tonal space as they do in the allegro, rather the mood remains very down to earth – almost two octaves* lower than the first movement.
In the third movement the sextet moves into the catacombs of the tonal space. The cello plays a prominent role in its bass function. Again the middle of the movement gives Tchaikovsky the opportunity to change the mood from reflective brooding to a light-hearted dance. The final movement is an exuberance of joy as the continuation of the third movement. The fugue, that made Tchaikovsky so proud, is indeed a masterwork in itself. The theme is first exposed by the violins, the violas then, the cellos finally culminating in a torrential coda* as Lischke describes it.
The two last movements have more in common with Russian folk tunes than anything Italian, and it is interesting that Tchaikovsky never connected the sextet to anything specific about Florence. Souvenir de Florence? Yes, but what souvenir? We would like to know, but we don’t know. Tchaikovsky remains obscure about it. Lischke writes the sextet has no deeper message, Tchaikovsky would have composed it just for the pleasure of the audience.
The audience. The audience is invited to listen to a beautiful recording by the Moscow String Quartet and Guests. Fasten seat belts!
© Charles Thibo