Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence
Composed as a response to being awarded an honorary membership of the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society in 1886, Tchaikovsky pledged that he would “write and dedicate to your society some sort of chamber music work.” Thus, Souvenir de Florence was born by June 1887.
He decided on a string sextet (2 violins, 2 violas & 2 cellos), and noted in his diary that he had:
“Composed a little start of a sextet. I jotted down sketches for a string sextet, but with little enthusiasm, I haven’t the slightest inclination to work. Because I have only a passing desire to compose, I am beginning to fear that I am losing my powers of composition, and becoming angry with myself.”
It took Tchaikovsky quite some time to complete this sextet, and by December 1890,Souvenir de Florence received its premiere in a private concert in Saint Petersburg. After this performance the composer decided to heavily revise the third and fourth movements after commenting that the sextet “turned out to be astonishingly bad in all respects.”
In 1890, Tchaikovsky spent some time in Florence, where he was also working on a draft of his opera The Queen of Spades. His popular ballet The Sleeping Beauty was being premiered in Florence at the same time, and this is where the inspiration for the title of his sextet originated.
Souvenir de Florence is in four movements:
- Allegro con spirito
- Adagio cantabile e con moto
- Allegretto moderato
- Allegro con brio e vivace
Opening with a highly intense melody that is rich in texture with the violins leading with the melody and other other instruments aggressively chugging away underneath. This is then developed into a calmer second subject, which highlights Tchaikovsky’s signature Romantic style.
The movement is in sonata form and this sees the melody stated, developed, recapped and then thrust into a quick coda. The intense atmosphere of this movement is balanced out by the much calmer second movement.
The much calmer second movement opens with a unison figure that lays the foundation for the romantic theme led by the violas and then the first violin. The pizzicato accompaniment adds a sense of innocence to the music, making it an ideal shift from the tumultuous first movement. Each instrument has a chance to play through the melody before a flurry of melodic passages are played by all instruments, before returning back to a repeat of the opening pizzicato section.
Based on a Russian folk melody, the quirky third movement sees aspects of the first two movements intertwined in this third movement. From the intense atmosphere to the powerful unison passages, each element of this movement is strung together by the folk melody. This movement also sees the most segregation of the instruments as they stick in their pairs. The movement comes to a quiet close before a loud pluck of strings ends the third movement.
Also based on a Russian folk melody, the spritely finale movement is fast in tempo and rough in its rhythm distribution. The intense atmosphere is lifted somewhat for this movement, however it does still linger during corners of this movement. A contrast in sections shows the confused temperament that the composer was feeling whilst composing this work. From the folk melody sections to much more rich and romantic sections, this movement is based on various atmospheres. The finale movement comes to a rousing finish after a quintessential Tchaikovsky finish.
Souvenir de Florence has also been orchestrated for string orchestra, which is perhaps more performed today than the original sextet version. Although Tchaikovsky struggled to complete this work, the final product has become a staple in chamber string music. From the fluctuating atmospheres, to the complex rhythmic structures, Souvenir de Florence is a tour-de-force for string ensemble.