16. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence
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“I started working on [the sextet] three days ago,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother in 1890. “One needs six independent but, at the same time, homogenous voices. This is frightfully difficult.” The composer persevered, however, and in 1892 he completed Souvenir de Florence, with its rich texture, active accompaniment, and expressive melodies. Tchaikovsky was fond of Italy throughout his career, and he had sketched the theme for the warm Adagio cantabile in Florence itself. Assessments of the work’s national style—Italianate or inescapably Russian—vary widely, but the sextet is quintessential Tchaikovsky, suffused with his characteristic longing, keen rhythms, and unforgettable tunes.
The opening Allegro balances a stormy beginning with a sweetly contrasting second theme, slowly building in excitement to an extremely speedy and virtuosic coda. After a brief, descending slow introduction, the Adagio launches into guitar-like pizzicato accompaniment for rapturous first violin melodies, soon joined by the cellos; after a contrasting central episode, urgent and rustling, the duet resumes with the cellos leading. The ensuing Allegro has the flavour of Slavic traditional music, albeit with an airy, balletic central Intermezzo. Tchaikovsky was especially pleased with the finale, saying, “What a great fugue there is at the end—a real delight.” This contrapuntal tour de force ends with a fast and furious coda.
© Ariadne Lih
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