Peter Iljitsch Tschaikowsky
Souvenir de Florence op. 70 for string sextet
(b. Votkinsky, 7 May 1840 – d. St. Petersburg, 6 November 1893)
Tchaikovsky’s chamber music compositions were few, and the last of them, dating from a few years before his death, was for the unusual combination of string sextet (2 each of violins, violas, and cellos.) His Souvenir de Florence was written in Russia as a commission from the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society. It was composed after returning from his last trip to Italy, where he had worked on his opera The Queen of Spades. It was completed in 1890 and performed in November of that year in the composer’s home. Tchaikovsky was unhappy with many of the details and revised the work in 1892. It was published that same year in its final form by Jurgenson.
Except for the title, there is little about the Souvenir that is distinctly “Florentine” or even “Italian.” What this piece shows us is that a composer can be inspired by a geographical locale and culture without injecting overtly “native” elements into his work. His Capriccio Italien has a distinctly Italian feel, but the Souvenir does not. It is in fact a very Russian work, and replete with all the characteristics of the mature composer.
Critics have been divided about this work’s quality, as they have about all of Tchaikovsky’s music, but it has always held a secure place in the repertory and remains popular with performers and audiences alike. Tchaikovsky allegedly had difficulty writing the Souvenir, and indeed most composers eschew this combination of instruments. But the result of his effort was a work which is both enduring and versatile; it has been performed (and recorded) both as a sextet, with six equal parts, and in many different adaptations for larger string orchestra with varying numbers of players on each part. Although opinions vary as to whether the writing is “chamber-like” or “orchestral-like” the fact remains that the piece has proven successful and popular in both formats.
The work is large in scale, running some 35 minutes. The first movement, in D minor, is an extensive and modified sonata movement with a brisk coda that gets faster in several increments. The second movement (D major) is the only part of the piece that could be considered reminiscent of Italy, with its lyrical violin theme and pizzicato accompaniment. But it is also reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony. The third movement (A minor) is a scherzo in 2/4 meter which is assigned a moderate tempo and has a trio in A major which utilizes “ricochet” bowings. The finale (D minor/major) is a sonata-rondo in the “Russian” style that Tchaikovsky used both famously and to great effect. The second lyrical theme (initially in C major) is one of his most “singable” and endearing tunes. In the middle is a double fugue, which builds to a frenzied contrapuntal climax before spilling gloriously into the return of the second theme, now in the tonic D major. This finale truly brings the entire work together to a thrilling conclusion.
M.J. Sunny Zank, Professor of Music, Ohio Northern University, 2010
For performance material please contact the publisher Kalmus, Boca Raton. Reprint of a copy from the collection Kurt Schinnerl, Bad Pirawarth.