Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Souvenir of Florence, Op. 70

Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 (1882)


Souvenir of Florence, Op. 70 (1890, revised 1892), Sextet for two violins, two violas, and two cellos

Kashkin, in his reminiscences of Tchaikovsky, tells us that the latter knew very little chamber music in his early years and that the sound of the string quartet was absolutely distasteful to him.

Michael D. Calvocoressi, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Souvenir of Florence is a sextet for strings. Souvenir of Naples is a sexually transmitted disease. I thought I should make that distinction before proceeding any further. That done, the string sextet developed in the latter part of the 19th Century. Of the medium itself, musicologist Nicholas Comyn Gatty writes in his Grove’s article "If the string quartet is the ideal combination for concerted solo playing, it follows that the addition of parts tends to defeat its object, for the ear cannot take in more than a certain amount of multiplicity of detail, while masses of rich tone color, whether the writing is polyphonic or harmonic in its main outline, take one beyond the medium." However, he does go on to credit Brahms with "notable examples" (Op. 18 & 36) in the medium. The other notable examples in the medium; by Dvorák Op. 48, Schönberg Op. 4 Verklärte Nacht (described by one critic as "a calf with six legs"), and Erich Korngold Op. 10. (Tchaikovky’s opus is not mentioned) show why Gatty is a musicologist, and the other guys are composers.

Both of Tchaikovsky’s works composed in Italy, the Capriccio Italien Op. 45, and the Souvenir of Florence are high spirited, ebullient works from a composer who seemed more at home in the gloom and doom end of the emotional spectrum. However, the contents of these two works are quite different from each other. The brilliantly orchestrated Capriccio Italien uses Italian folk melodies and fanfares heard by the composer in Italy. The Souvenir of Florence is not particularly "Italian" or even "Tuscan" sounding; the third and fourth movements have a distinctly Russian character, as if the composer were musing about the folk music heard in his native land – a traveler thinking of home. The work took Tchaikovsky six weeks to complete. It would be his last piece of chamber music. Upon completing the work, he wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck (who he never actually met in person – that was their deal) "It gives me great pleasure to know that you will be hearing my sextet. I do hope this music will please you". Indeed, the work pleased him very much, for he wrote, " What a Sextet, and what a Fugue at the end; it is a pleasure, it’s frightening the degree to which I am pleased with myself!" Well, he must have had second thoughts because he revised the work before publication in 1891-92. The work received its premiere performance in St.Petersburg on Dec. 7, 1892.

1999-2000 Season, Program V , Sunday June 4, 2000

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Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor was played in Vienna for the first time; the faces of the listeners almost expressed the wish that it should be also the last time… It belongs to the category of suicidal compositions, which kill themselves by their merciless length.

Edward Hanslick, Am Ende des Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1899

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 (1882)

The A minor Piano Trio was written as a memorial tribute to Nicholas Rubenstein, Director of the Moscow Conservatory, (brother of the pianist and composer Anton Rubenstein). Rubenstein had served as mentor, critic and supporter to Tchaikovsky; had seen to it that Tchaikovsky’s works got the best possible performances. However, they did not always agree on matters musical. In a letter to his Patroness Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky described the reaction of Rubenstein when he played the famous B flat Minor Piano Concerto for him. " I played the first movement. Never a word, never a single remark. Do you know the awkward and ridiculous sensation of putting before a friend a meal which you have cooked yourself, which he eats – and [then] holds his tongue? Oh for a single word, for friendly abuse, for anything to break the silence! For God’s sake say something ! But Rubenstein never opened his lips. He was preparing his thunderbolt, and Hubert (an onlooker) was waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Rubenstein’s silence was eloquent. ‘My dear friend,’ he seemed to be saying to himself, ‘how can I speak of the details when the work goes entirely against the grain?’ I gathered patience and played the concerto straight through to the end. Still silence.

‘Well?’ I asked, and rose from the piano. Then a torrent broke from Rubenstein’s lips. Gentle at first, gathering volume as it proceeded.’ And finally bursting into the fury of a Jupiter. My concerto was worthless, absolutely unplayable; the passages so broken, so disconnected, so unskillfully written, that they could not even be improved; the work itself was bad, trivial, common; here and there I had stolen from other people; only one or two pages were worth anything at all; all the rest had better be destroyed. I left the room without a word. Presently Rubenstein came to me and seeing how upset I was, repeated that my concerto was impossible (but) said if I would suit it to his requirements he would bring it out at his concert. ‘I shall not alter a single note.’ I replied." Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky had one described Rubenstein as a "heartless, dried-up pianist", he was so devastated by Rubenstein’s death in March of 1881, as well as the illness of his sister, that he ceased work altogether until December of that same year. (As a result of Rubenstein’s death, Tchaikovsky was offered the position of Director of the Moscow Conservatory, which he declined.) He then began work on the piano trio – an instrumental combination he had heretofore felt antipathy toward. He had once written to von Meck, who was urging to write a piano trio, that it was torture to him to have to listen to the combination of piano with violin and cello. The Trio bears the dedication "to the memory of a great artist". Given Rubenstein’s reaction to the piano concerto, I would suggest that the fact that old Nick was dead, and couldn’t hear the work dedicated to him, might have spared the sensitive Peter Ilyich another savaging.

The Piano trio is a large-scale work in two sections. The first movement, in sonata form, is marked "Pezzo elegiaco" – elegaic piece. And that it is: melancholy, yet warm and passionate, filled with Tchaikovsky’s broad and lovely melodies. A less charitable view of the work is taken by Alfred Einstein in Music in the Romantic Era (1947) in which he characterizes the work as " a classic example of his (Tchaikovsky’s) boundless emotionalism". Describing the composer as "a neurotic, yielding unreservedly to his lyric, melancholy, and emotional ebullitions, he marked most distinctly a last phase of Romanticism – exhibitionism of feeling." Einstein (that’s AlFRED, not AlBERT) viewed the work as "a veritable orgy of sequences and naked feelings".

The second part of the work consists of a set of variations followed by a finale and coda. The simple folk-like theme for the variations is said to have been inspired by the memories of a happy day in the country, where Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein were entertained by peasants singing and playing for them. There are eleven variations of the theme, which is introduced by the piano. Here are some "landmarks"to let you know where you are. In the first variation the violin presents the theme, followed by (what else) variation two, where the cello sings the theme as the violin provides a countermelody. If you hear what sounds to be a "scherzo" by the piano punctuated by pizz’es from the strings you’re in the third variation. If it’s the theme played in the minor mode, you’re in the fourth variation. If you think you hear what sounds like a music box – piano in the upper register, with strings providing a drone, you’re in the fifth variation. After an intro of repeated notes by the cello, the group breaks into an elegant waltz –said to be evocation of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Don’t be fooled, this sixth variation is a long one. If you hear the piano belting out chords, punctuated by the strings, you’re in the seventh variation. It’s a short one, and we’re coming down the home stretch. If you hear a lot of contrapuntal stuff, canons and the like, you’re in the eighth variation - this from a composer who had no love for Bach and Handel. If it’s a lively mazurka you hear, why you’re in the tenth variation. One more to go. Almost. If you hear the cello plunking out a bass line to repeated notes on the piano, and a gradual dying away of the theme you’re in the eleventh variation. If you hear applause, the piece is over.

The finale actually starts out with yet another variation of the theme; festive and jubilant and developed at length. This manic mood eventually, but abruptly changes, as if the composer, lost in pleasant memories, is suddenly brought back to his pain at the loss of his friend. The melancholy opening theme of the first movement returns, orchestral and engulfing in its force. This gives way to a solemn funeral march, whose characteristic dum – dum – dee - dum rhythm is given to the piano, while the first movement theme given to the strings, itself dies away.

After he completed the work, Tchaikovsky had it played for some friends, as a result of which he made some revisions in the score. Still a very demanding work, requiring nothing less that virtuosity from all the players, it was first privately performed in Moscow on Mar. 2, 1882, with Sergei Taneyev (a composer and teacher of some note) at the piano. The violin was played by N. Grimaldi; the cello by Wilhelm Fitzhagen. The first public performance took place in Moscow on Oct.30, 1882.

1999-2000 Season, Program IV, Sunday April 9, 2000

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All original text on this page copyright 2000 by Joseph Way