Classical Music | Music for Quartet

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70 "Souvenir de Florence"  Play

Vermeer Quartet Quartet

Recorded on 05/01/1993, uploaded on 04/01/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Florence was one of Tchaikovsky's favorite vacation spots. For many of his pleasant Florentine sojourns, Tchaikovsky stayed at a small villa owned by Nadezhda von Meck, his generous benefactress and confidante whom Tchaikovsky, as a condition of their unusual relationship, was never to meet. Tchaikovsky used his peaceful escapes to Florence to sketch, orchestrate, or just relax away from music.

Tchaikovsky's last visit to Florence came early in 1890. He was then primarily occupied with the completion of his opera Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades). In Paris later that year, Tchaikovsky had the idea for and began to sketch a work inspired by his beloved Florence. Tchaikovsky's conception took the fairly uncommon shape of a string sextet, which he completed in Russia that summer. The Sextet has come to be known by its artful subtitle, Souvenir de Florence (reminiscence of Florence). A private performance of Souvenir was given in December 1890, but Tchaikovsky was unsatisfied and withdrew the piece for a bout of revisions and structural alterations.

A trip to America for the opening of Carnegie Hall slowed the revising process, so Souvenir did not attain its final form until December 1891. A contented Tchaikovsky then wrote to his brother Modest, "What a Sextet - and 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." Souvenir received its public premiere on December 6, 1892 at a concert presented by the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, to which Tchaikovsky dedicated the piece.

The opening Allegro con spirito bursts forth full of D minor fervor, the minor-ninth in the first bar delivering a strange and unceremonious kick to the first theme. The texture is robust with highly active musical lines generating a passionate momentum. The serenade-like second theme is appropriately Italianate. The first theme's restless energy returns in the fugal development while the second theme reveals more cantabile richness in the recapitulation as it is surrounded by new imitations and a myriad of telling details. The coda employs cross-rhythms reminiscent of Dvorak as it builds to heady levels of excitement. The Andante cantabile, D major second movement begins with an opulent, chordal introduction. The melancholy theme that follows has the character of a guitaraccompanied lament. The chords return before the movement's curious Moderato central section in which the players are instructed to play a punto d'arco (with the pointof the bow), an effect that adds a frosty glazing to the music's countenance. English music critic, Colin Mason describes this passage as "an essay in sheer sound effect, without the least musical content whatever, which is probably unique in the whole realm of [pre-twentieth century] chamber music." After this unusual episode, the opening theme returns with garlanding embellishments; the cello's lavish outpourings of bel canto beauty serve to remind us that this work was inspired by the homeland of Giuseppe Verdi.

The third movement, a swaying and energetic Scherzo in A minor, sounds more Russian than Italian. The violas playing in unison open the brilliant Trio section filled with fanfare-like exclamations and irradiating accompaniment. The Allegro vivace finale is in an abridged sonata form. It starts in D minor, but the theme's pentatonic overtones are redolent of Gypsy music. As with the Scherzo, a Slavonic tang flavors the Finale's soaring second theme. The first theme returns to form the basis of the "fugue at the end"about which Tchaikovsky justifiably boasted to his brother. The frenetic, headlong rush that concludes this Tchaikovsky opus has an especially airy feeling of melodic freedom, making the Souvenir de Florence's ending a genuine al fresco delight.

- Huw Edwards

More music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Valse-Scherzo in C Major
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Dumka, Op. 59
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Melodie, Op. 42, No. 3
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The Nutcracker Suite
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Meditation, from 18 Pieces, Op.72
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Violin Concerto

Performances by same musician(s)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
Benjamin Britten
Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2

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