Friday, February 14, 2014

Tchaikovsky - String Sextet 'Souvenir de Florence'

When Tchaikovsky was made an honorary member of the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society in 1886 he promised to compose a chamber work and dedicate it to the society. After he decided the work was going to be a string sextet, he made some preliminary sketches in 1887 , but it wasn't until June of 1890 that he started to work on it in earnest. Tchaikovsky mentioned the sextet in letters to his friends and told of the difficulty he had in writing in what was a new form for him.  By November of 1890 the work was completed, but Tchaikovsky would not allow it to be published until he heard it in performance. There was a private performance of the work in Tchaikovsky's apartment in December, after which Tchaikovsky decided to rework the last two movements. It wasn't until December of 1892 that the first public performance of the original work was played.  Tchaikovsky's revised version was heard the same month and year. The revised version was published in June of 1892 and as promised carried a dedication to the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society. The title of the sextet refers to a trip Tchaikovsky made to Florence, Italy where he had sketched one of the work's themes. The work is for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro con spirito - The movement begins straight away with a spirited theme in D minor. The second theme is more lyrical and expansive in nature. The exposition is not repeated. The development section contends with the D minor first theme by way of a fugal treatment, the second theme expands its singing qualities. There is a short section where both themes play off each other that leads to the recapitulation which is followed by a coda. The first theme grows in intensity, speed is increased followed by the final chords.

II. Adagio cantabile e con moto - Full chords open the second movement in music that is in sharp contrast to the preceding movement. The gently sad D major theme is played by a violin to a pizzicato accompaniment. Soon the cello enters with the theme while the violin plays a counter melody. There is a mysterious middle section marked moderato that is more of an interlude, as it doesn't have any thematic connection with the rest of the movement. It is in D minor and consists of rapid sixteenth note triplets played up and down the fingerboard and Tchaikovsky instructs the players to play with the tip of the bow which gives a different texture to the sound. After this short diversion, the melody returns in the cello, the accompaniment is varied as the tune is expanded. The music is marked cantabile and slowly winds down, ending with a dynamic marking of  a hushed quadruple piano.

III.Allegretto moderato - A scherzo in all but name, it is in the key of A minor and time signature of 2/4 rather than the more conventional triple time of a scherzo. The theme is first stated by a viola and then by a violin. The trio is in A major and even more energetic. The scherzo returns and continues ot bounce and sway until it reaches a short coda ended by a pungent pizzicato chord by all six instruments.

IV.Allegro con brio e vivace - The finale continues the energy of the scherzo. It returnsto the home key of D minor, with the first theme played by a violin. After it runs its course a short fugal section appeas before the second theme appears. It is no less energetic than the first theme and after it has its say the development begins with the first theme being worked up to a fever pitch. The fugal section reappears but is more involved and complex this time around. The first theme gives way to the second theme once again and the music continues ot grow in intensity until the coda arrives which is marked piu vivace with a quadruple forte. The music becomes yet more intense as the strings run breathlessly to the closing chords.

Tchaikovsky was a man of incredibly complex and powerful emotions which caused him to have many a personal crisis, including periodic episodes of severe depression. The work is emotional in the extreme and caused Tchaikovsky much anguish and work to finish it, but he was justly proud of what he had accomplished and said so in a letter to his brother:
"What a sextet - what a fugue at the end - it's a pleasure! It is awful how pleased I am with myself: I am embarrassed not by any lack of ideas but by the novelty of the form."
The  Souvenir de Florence has within its pages the passion Tchaikovsky had for Florence as evidenced in the first two movements and the love he had for his native Russia which can be heard in the final two movements. It is a masterpiece of composition and emotion. The Souvenir de Florence was the only sextet he would write and it came late in his career, but three years before his controversial death in 1893.

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