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Italian vacation inspires Tchaikovsky’s last chamber work

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

On Thursday, the Halycon Music Festival opens its second season with a concert including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 string sextet “Souvenir de Florence.” The piece cost Tchaikovsky six years of intermittent, often frustrating effort. In 1887, the composer diarized: “I jotted down sketches for a string sextet, but with little enthusiasm.” He wrote his brother in 1890 that he was “writing with difficulty.” After a private 1891 tryout of the piece, Tchaikovsky judged it “astonishingly bad in all respects.” Only after another round of revisions did Tchaikovsky send the sextet to his publisher. It was his final piece of chamber music.

For all that angst, the “Souvenir de Florence” originated in a friendly tribute: In 1886, Tchaikovsky was elected an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, and promised to compositionally return the favor. But it took an Italian holiday to break his writer’s block. Florence had sparked Tchaikovsky’s imagination in the past. On one of his first visits, he collected the text and tune of his song “Pimpinella,” the last of his Op. 38 Romances and a perennial favorite among Russian singers. A later visit prompted the first ideas for his opera “The Maid of Orleans.” His final trip, in 1890, was the most productive of all: He drafted the entirety of his opera “The Queen of Spades,” and also came up with the long breath of melody that became the theme for the sextet’s slow movement.

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Hence the title, which is the most Italian thing about the piece. And the melody Tchaikovsky brought back is so stereotypically Tchaikovsky-esque — dark, melancholic, spiked with chromatic twinges — that he might well have written it at home. But much of the sextet has a particular verve hinting at a vacationing spirit. The St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society was heavily German; Tchaikovsky paid homage to that aesthetic high-mindedness with music both learned and breezy. The forms are strict, but the paragraphs breathe with confident ease.

In the finale, Tchaikovsky included the most academic form of all: a fugue, the highest manifestation of contrapuntal discipline, but also the freest. Tchaikovsky’s is unusually ingenious. Beginning in three voices, each voice then bifurcates, the result being a six-part, triple-duo texture, the thematic imitations coming ever closer on each others’ heels. Tchaikovsky’s Florence trip may have yielded an emotive memento, but the sextet ends with an escape into the joy of technique: a composer’s holiday.

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Matthew Guerrieri

The Halcyon Music Festival presents “Distant Journeys,” with music
by Schumann, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, Thursday at 7 p.m. at Phillips Church, Phillips Exeter Academy,
Exeter, N.H. (suggested donation $25; 617-651-1387; www.halcyonmusic
festival.org).


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.