Both Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky were composers who, though deeply invested in their Russian heritage as expressed in their work, were continually inspired by cultures and surroundings worldwide. In somewhat different senses, both composers were citizens of the Western world: Tchaikovsky through his extensive travels and Stravinsky more literally, as he established permanent residences in multiple countries over his lifetime. For each, Italy was near the top of their lists of countries providing a kind of cultural muse. Tchaikovsky first visited in 1872 and went on to spend significant time in 16 Italian cities and towns over the subsequent 18 years. Inspired by its backdrop, his Souvenir de Florence was begun during his final trip to the country in 1890. Stravinsky’s fondness for Italy led to his final request: to be buried at San Michele in Venice, steps away from the final resting place of his great collaborator, Sergei Diaghilev.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano
Composed: 1920, 1932
Instrumentation: violin and piano
After the difficult war years in exile in Switzerland, Stravinsky met up with Diaghilev in Paris in early 1919, where his old friend gave him the hard sell on an intriguing project, as the composer reported in
Diaghilev used all his diplomatic talents to entice me, the lost sheep so to speak, back into the fold of the Russian Ballet…. The success of The Good-humored Ladies, with Domenico Scarlatti’s music, had suggested the idea of producing something to the music of another illustrious Italian, Pergolesi, whom, as he knew, I liked and admired immensely. In his visits to Italy, Diaghilev had gone through a number of this master’s unfinished manuscripts…which Diaghilev showed to me, urging that I should seek my inspiration in it and compose the music for a ballet, the subject of which was to be taken from a collection containing various versions of the amorous adventures of Pulcinella…. The proposal that I should work with Picasso, who was to do the scenery and costumes and whose art was particularly near and dear to me, recollections of our walks together and the impressions of Naples we had shared, the great pleasure I had experienced from Massine’s choreography in The Good-humored Ladies; all this combined to overcome my reluctance. For it was a delicate task to breathe new life into scattered fragments and to create a whole from the isolated pages of a musician for whom I felt a special liking and tenderness.
It was later determined that many of the manuscripts Diaghilev found were not actually composed by Pergolesi but by other, lesser-known 18th-century Italian composers. The music nevertheless inspired Stravinsky, opening the door to the continuing evolution of his neo-Classical style. His score is a recomposition of the pseudo-Pergolesi, retaining the lyric content, timbral clarity, and Italian galant (a light and elegant composition technique, popular in the 18th century) style of phrasing while spicing up the harmonies and sharpening the rhythmic and dynamic profile.
The character of Pulcinella was taken from the familiar commedia dell’artePetrushka. The comedic story for Stravinsky’s ballet is adapted from a 1700 Italian manuscript titled Four Identical Pulcinellas. Absurdist and stylized, the scenario involves three jealous couples, two angry fathers, a magician, a revived corpse, and a rapidly multiplying number of “Pulcinellas” appearing just as the real one is supposed to have died.
The humor and wit of Stravinsky’s score magically matched the playful tone of the libretto. The production was a great success, and Stravinsky would go on to extract a number of suites from the score. The arrangement for violin and piano, entitled Suite Italienne, was put together with Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin, for whom Stravinsky wrote his Violin Concerto in 1931. The collaboration was one of many the two enjoyed with one another, performing them on tour together internationally over subsequent years.
Deliciously piquant dissonances pepper the lively Introduzione, where the violin alternately lays down the firm rhythms of a Baroque dance and functions as a rustic fiddle. A consistent 12/8 meter with a long-short rhythmic ostinato (repeated rhythm) in the piano creates the dreamy atmosphere of the Serenata. The frenetic Tarantella is also in a compound meter, but with a wholly different character, here jumping and stomping through an energetic whirlwind. Were it not for a few prominent dissonances and some subtle play with phrase proportions, the main Gavotta theme could be mistaken for its Baroque model, though the two variations gradually see an increased 20th-century presence. The Minuetto gives away its modern context earlier, with its rococo grace and charm only enhanced by carefully placed violin harmonics and bouncy double-stop staccatos. The suite is capped with a brisk and joyful finale.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Souvenir de Florence in D Minor for String Sextet, Op. 70
Instrumentation: 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos
On the basis of three string quartets and a piano trio, the St. Petersburg Chamber Society awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary membership in October 1886, at which time he promised to write a chamber work for the Society. In early 1887, he began to write a sextet to fulfill his promise but, lacking inspiration, stopped working on it after only a few days. It was not until early 1890, when he was engaged in writing his opera The Queen of Spades in Florence, that Tchaikovsky returned to the sextet.
Tchaikovsky traveled to Florence at least eight times during his life, four times for extended stays. It was a city that clearly inspired him. On a prior trip in 1878, he wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that the city was “very, very pleasant, [creating] memories that will stay with me my whole lifetime.” His 1890 trip was his final journey to Florence, and it lasted over two months. During this time, in a flash of creativity, he jotted down a melody that was to become the theme for the Adagio of the sextet, which he began composing in earnest in June, after he had returned to Russia. He described to his brother the goals and particular difficulties he had in writing for the combination of instruments in his sextet (two violins, two violas, and two cellos):
I’m composing with unbelievable effort. I’m hampered not by lack of ideas, but by the novelty of the form. There must be six independent and at the same time homogeneous parts…. I do not merely want to write a musical composition arranged for six instruments but specifically a sextet; that is, six independent voices which can be performed only and exactly as a sextet.
Whether these difficulties faded or he simply battled through them, Tchaikovsky was able to complete a draft of the sextet in just over two weeks. However, when the work was given a private performance later that year, he was not satisfied and subsequently spent over a year and a half revising it, concentrating on the final two movements. When the sextet was published and premiered in 1892, the Society finally had its dedicatory piece, and Tchaikovsky had completed his penultimate multimovement work, his last being the Sixth Symphony.
The D minor first movement, in sonata form, opens with an immediate and confident statement of the first theme in the violin I with full accompaniment. The second theme, also appearing first in the violin I, outlines the same melodic contour as the first (descending a step and then a fifth) but is more songful and expressive. While clearly in A major, the skillfully extended second theme section withholds the tonic chord for 120 measures. After the chord finally arrives, a short cadential theme is introduced in the viola II and the violin I, constituting a short conversation that solidifies the key area and leads into the development. The development explores all of these themes and exposes a close relationship between the cadential theme and the first theme. Appearing at the end is a fiery and frenzied coda with accelerating tempos and thickening textures that rallies the movement to a tumultuous close.
A slow, homophonic introduction to the second movement sets a new mood. The D major Adagio features the eloquent “Florence” melody, which is easily and gently passed between the violin I, the cello I, and eventually the viola I. A middle episode in D minor is wonderfully mysterious, composed of quick-moving triplets in all six parts that dart through phrases of varying lengths. The movement is an apt tribute to a city that Tchaikovsky wrote “left me with the impression of a wonderful, sweet dream.”
The third movement, in A minor, is also in A-B-A form. The viola I first presents a Russian theme with a mesmerizing articulative pattern in the accompaniment that shifts throughout the movement. The theme is shuttled between various instruments and instrumental combinations and includes a compelling rising contrapuntal line. Modulating to A major, the middle section exhibits a new tempo and a new feel via a light, skipping, staccato melody.
Like the opening Allegro, the Finale is a D minor sonata-form movement, and like the third movement, its main theme has a distinctively Russian tone. A fugal section connects this lively first theme to a C major second theme presented strongly in the violin I and the cello I. In the recapitulation, this fugal section is extended in an impressive display of contrapuntal writing. A virtuosic coda rivals the coda of the first movement in its spirited bravado.
Program notes by Jon Kochavi