This week’s music is the Souvenir de Florence by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
This string sextet was composed during a time in Tchaikovsky’s life that was devoid of inspiration. Historians have found journal entries from this time in his life that evoke despair and depression. In several of them, Tchaikovsky doubts his ability to compose at all. It is therefore surprising that this cheerful and upbeat composition is the result of such a time in Tchaikovsky’s life.
The composition is structurally very easy to understand. As a rule of thumb, every theme is presented by a single instrument family. In other words, the exposition of a theme will begin in the two violins, progress to the two violas, and end in the two cellos. Although these voices will of course be independent of each other at times, they always resolve in their original pairs.
We are very fortunate to have some of Tchaikovsky’s letters to his colleagues about the piece. We know from these letters that the first movement needs to be played with “great fire and passion.” Similarly, we know that he wanted the slow second movement to reflect a summer thunderstorm with muted lightning in the distance. Tchaikovsky also ventured into relatively uncharted territory by incorporating a fugue format into the third movement. This is a structural and stylistic marker that was much more common 200 years before Tchaikovsky’s time. However, he bravely builds the entire third movement around a fugal system in which the pairs of instruments continuously add and subtract identical thematic material above and beneath each other.