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Familiarity with Tchaikovsky’s “big” music – the symphonies, tone poems, and operas – would lead one to venture that chamber music was not the Russian composer’s glass of tea. But he did apply himself at various times in his life to three types of chamber works: string quartet (three, in the 1870s, the first of which is surprisingly masterful); piano trio (one in 1882); and the present sextet for strings, composed in 1890. The sextet actually occupied him for several years, the first sketches having been made in 1887 and revisions dating up to 1892. But the main work on it was done in 1890, upon his return from a stay in Florence, thus his own application of the title, Souvenir de Florence. (Titles for compositions were almost invariably given by publishers who thought that a work with a name would be better box office. For example, 29 of Haydn’s 104 symphonies have names, as do five of Mozart’s 41, etc.)
The writing of the sextet seems to have come about as a welcome change of pace from his labors on the opera Pique Dame and the ballet The Nutcracker, and also as an offering to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, who was ailing at the time and not able to leave her home. Tchaikovsky, contriving to please her with a work she could hear in her own salon, wrote to her: “I know you love chamber music and I am glad you will be able to hear my sextet…. I wrote it with the greatest enthusiasm and with the least exertion.” The composer seems to have been of two minds on the latter point for he confided to his brother that manipulating the six strings gave him a devil of a time. In any case, creative rigors, if he suffered any, do not show in this work, which evidences considerably more naturalness, and infinitely more geniality, than many of his large-scale compositions.
Indeed, it must have been a psychological holiday for Tchaikovsky to lay aside the seething turbulence of a full orchestra, with all the swollen emotionalism it connoted to him, and bathe in the luxurious but relatively chaste redolence of the six strings. (But don’t think for a moment that Peter Ilyich didn’t give the players some big-boned passages that have them digging hard into their instruments for plenty of sonority.) And through it all, the composer’s melodic muse was in ever-present attendance, providing themes in embarrassing abundance, albeit mainly ones of Russian, not Italian, character. If Tchaikovsky really thought the sextet contained souvenirs of Florence, one can only argue that he didn’t do much shopping in Italy; in fact, the work’s Russianness bristles throughout the four movements, especially the third and fourth.
The ease and graciousness of the sextet can be attributed in part to his enjoyment of the Italian city for which it was named, but also to other factors: the position of international celebrity which he had attained and the elation he was feeling because of his sense of having achieved something notable in Pique Dame.
The sextet’s first movement begins with a vigorous main theme that is later contrasted by a theme that is possibly the single melody in the sextet whose airiness has an Italian lyricism. The Adagio second movement opens with a kind of slow version of the first movement’s main theme, and then goes on to a gracious melody supported by a pizzicato accompaniment. In the middle section, Tchaikovsky abandons songfulness and chamber music purity to produce an episode that is sheer sound-effect, with the strings playing rapidly on the point of the bow. The third movement is all carefree brightness, with a trio section that reminds us Tchaikovsky had The Nutcracker dancing in his head at the time. For the finale, the composer reached out for a trifling tune, probably of folk origin, sending it through all manner of activity, including, surprisingly enough, a fugato, just before the brilliant close.
Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic’s program book.