String Sextet, Op. 70 Souvenir de Florence

In the fall of 1886, the St. Petersburg Music Society elected Tchaikovsky as an honorary member, but instead of giving him a plaque, they asked him to compose a piece for them. For reasons unknown, he chose to write a string sextet, and it proved to be more daunting than he expected. He made some preliminary sketches for it, but then put it aside for four years until he was in Florence, Italy working on his opera, The Queen of Spades. In a moment of inspiration, a melody came to him. He jotted it down, and eventually it became the backbone of the Sextet’s second movement, played by the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment. Back in Russia in 1890, he wrote a letter to his brother describing the challenges he faced: “I started working [on the Sextet] three days ago and am writing with difficulty, handicapped by lack of ideas and the new form. One needs six independent voices, but they must be homogeneous at the same time. This is frightfully difficult. Haydn never managed to conquer this problem and never wrote anything but quartets for chamber music.” When he completed it, however, Tchaikovsky wrote a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, in which he said, “I have written it with extreme enthusiasm and pleasure, without the slightest effort.”

When Tchaikovsky presented it to the Society, they awarded him their Medal of Merit, prompting him to say that he looked forward to writing another sextet, he never did.

Although this piece is in a minor key, for the most part it is ebullient, energetic, and upbeat. The only part of it that overtly says “sunny Italy” is the second movement’s theme he wrote in Florence, the theme that has become known as the Souvenir de Florence. In the score, over this wonderful melody he wrote, “sweet and singing”.