Program Notes: Flavors of Old Russia: Tchaikovsky, Glinka & Borodin

June 8, 2022

String Sextet in D Minor

Alexander Borodin
Born November 12, 1833, in St. Petersburg; died there February 27, 1887

The chamber music tradition in Russia goes back to the 18th century when Catherine the Great brought some of Western Europe’s best musicians to her court. Later, Beethoven wrote some of his greatest quartets on commission from two Russian noblemen who had refined musical taste, Count Andre Razumovsky and Prince Nicolas Galitzin. Russia’s own first accomplished composer, Mikhail Glinka, (1804-1857) fell under the spell of this genre of music from the West soon chamber music occupied an important place in Russian musical life.

Alexander Borodin was one of Russia’s major 19th century composers, but music was only his avocation, and thus his works are few in number. A distinguished scientist, physician, and chemist, who studied in Heidelberg, he even founded and directed a medical school for women. All this scientific commitment gave him limited time for musical composition, but he wrote two fine symphonies, the great opera, Prince Igor, and a number of other works that are still performed. He had a problem finalizing his work and completed some of it only when his friends forced him to do so. Legend has it that these friends even finished some compositions for him.

This sextet was written in Heidelberg and not published until the late 20th century. Only two movements are extant, but Borodin scholars, notably Igor Belza who wrote a biography of Borodin, think that there originally must have been four movements either written or intended for this work. 

The first movement, Allegro, begins with the first violin introducing the principal theme, which before the movement concludes, appears in all six parts. This harmonically not complex movement shows the influence of German music, especially that of Mendelssohn, as well as Borodin’s interest in Russian folksong. Composed in sonata form, it has a very short development section, and its recapitulation is not a literal one. The voicing changes and the principal theme appears in both the major and the minor modes.

The second movement, Andante, a freer structure, begins with the principal theme in the violin with chordal accompaniment of the other instruments. Borodin startled his listeners and musical theorists by juxtaposing different keys without traditional preparation. The ending quietly fades away with the cellos playing in octaves, giving support to the idea that Borodin did not intend this movement to be the finale of the work.


Trio Pathétique in D Minor for clarinet, bassoon and piano

Mikhail Glinka
Born June 21, 1804, in Novosspaskoye, Russia; died February 15, 1857, in Berlin

At the beginning of the 19th century, the West dominated Russia’s musical life; indigenous Russian music was that of the church and the peasants. Glinka, who became known as the founder of Russian concert music, came from a noble family, and was educated for a life in government service, not music. When he visited the Caucasus in 1823, he discovered Russian folksong, which inspired him to become a professional musician, but before he turned to music full-time, he spent four tedious years from 1824 to 1828 employed by the Ministry of Roads and Communications.

In 1830, impelled by poor health and drawn by the romance he found in travel books, he journeyed to Milan and Berlin, where he studied their national musical styles, acquiring technical knowledge that made him a skillful composer. In Italy, he met opera composers Donizetti and Bellini, whose influence can be heard in this quite un-Russian sounding work. 

Speculations about the trio’s origin still persist, with most musicologists asserting it refers to an unrequited romance, as Glinka had several love affairs in 1832. The words he appended to the score are highly suggestive: “I have known love only through the pain it brings,” yet the overall mood of the music is more genial than tragic. 

In 1834, Glinka returned home, determined to create a Russian national style. He succeeded brilliantly, inspiring many of the Russian composers that followed him: the Mighty Five, a group of Russian composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov) particularly responded to his music based on Russian themes.

Although Glinka originally wrote Trio Pathétique for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, he created a version for violin, cello, and piano as well. Russian musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky felt this trio “reflects the cultured Westernized fashions of the upper classes in feudal Russia” before the “Russianization” of Glinka’s music. 

The trio has four movements, but it has the character of a through-composed single-movement; the first three movements are played without a break. The Allegro moderato movement’s main theme resembles the music of early Romanticism; it is an arching, cantabile melody that becomes increasingly more passionate with its repeated appearances. After a pause and a passage of triplets, a luxuriant, lyrical second subject is presented. 

In the center of the brief, melodic, quite playful Scherzo, Vivacissimo, a memorably beautiful cello melody appears; the lilting trio complements the scherzo. The piano particularly sparkles in this movement. Ominous chords lead to the moving Largo, which conveys deeply felt emotion, with the clarinet first featured lyrically, followed by the cello’s restatement and variation of the theme; then, the two join two together. The short Finale returns to material heard previously in the tragic Largo. Glinka introduces another wistful, elegiac motif in the passionate coda before the work reaches its dramatic conclusion. Throughout, Glinka showcases the technical virtuosity of the piano. 


Souvenir de Florence, String Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia; died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg

Tchaikovsky was particularly attracted to Italy and went to Rome in 1880 to visit his brother, who had an apartment there. While there, during the carnival season, Tchaikovsky was inspired to write Capriccio Italien. A decade later, he spent the first three months of 1890 in Florence where he completed his opera The Queen of Spades and began the ebullient, high-spirited sextet, Souvenir de Florence. In May, he wrote to the composer, Ippolitov-Ivanov, that his projects for the summer were to finish orchestrating the opera and to write a string sextet. In July, he completed the sextet and confided his satisfaction with his achievement to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck: “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!” Furthermore, he said he had accomplished it “with pleasure and enthusiasm, and without the least exertion.” Its spirit of warm nostalgia and good nature pays tribute to the sunny climate and friendly atmosphere he experienced in Italy.

Tchaikovsky never wrote much chamber music; this work, his final chamber work, must be included in the small group that also comprises three string quartets, one string quartet movement, and a trio. To write a sextet was an unusual choice for him since the entire repertoire of string sextets was neither large nor old. The first two in that configuration of any importance are those that Brahms worked on from the mid-1850s to 1860s. Tchaikovsky and Brahms used to enjoy each other’s company when they met during their concert tours. Each cordially respected the professionalism of the other, yet neither of them really liked the other’s music; nevertheless, when Tchaikovsky began to work at writing fluently and interestingly for a sextet, he almost certainly looked to Brahms’s two youthful sextets as models. 

Unlike Brahms, Tchaikovsky reduced his writing to the simple texture of melody with accompaniment, but the very existence of Souvenir de Florence is unimaginable without Brahms’ work. The music of Dvořák, Brahms’s disciple, may actually have been more instrumental, indirectly transmitting the sextet tradition to Tchaikovsky. The Czech Dvořák and the Russian Tchaikovsky had become good friends in 1888; the Slavic heritage they shared gave them a strong sense of kinship.

Tchaikovsky took the sextet to St. Petersburg when he went there for the rehearsals of The Queen of Spades that autumn. It was performed there in private for some of his friends, who included two young composers, Glazunov and Liadov, whose comments persuaded Tchaikovsky to revise the scherzo and the finale. The work received its first public performance on Dec. 7, 1892, at a concert of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, to which it is dedicated. When it was published, Tchaikovsky appended the descriptive title, Souvenir de Florence.

Tchaikovsky’s other “Italian” work, Capriccio Italien, is a souvenir of the sounds he heard in Rome, but the Sextet is not a “souvenir of Florence” in the same sense. It expresses not so much his pleasure in the place as his satisfaction at having worked so well on his opera there; it also indicates his cheery optimism about the future. The high-spirited music is charming, rich in quite varied colors, and full of lyrical melodies and vital rhythms. The first two movements are models of elegant Italianate, almost classical, restraint: the rather lengthy first movement, Allegro con spirito, is a loosely assembled serenade in a kind of extended sonata form. The first violin introduces both the first and the second themes: the first has a sense of drive, while the second is more lyrical. The second movement, Adagio cantabile e con moto, is a lovely song that begins with a series of chords before the first violin announces the melodic line over a pizzicato accompaniment. The brief central section is characterized by many dynamic changes; the initial material returns to round off the movement.

The last two movements are unabashedly Russian in subject matter and in mode of expression: the third is a somewhat scherzo-like Allegro moderato, in ternary form. The mid-section has a faster tempo than the beginning and end. In the last movement, Allegro con brio e vivace, Tchaikovsky turns a peasant dance tune into the subject of a fugue. The movement comes to a climax with a fugal treatment of the initial theme.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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