String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, “Souvenir de Florence"
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
This sextet occupied Tchaikovsky for sev- eral 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 Flor- ence, thus his own application of the title, Souvenir de Florence.
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 wrote to her: “I know you love cham- ber 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 first movement begins with a vigor- ous 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 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 Nut- cracker 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.