Literature abounds with travel writing but in the nineteenth century, with the coming of trains and steam boats, the demand for vicarious journeying through exotic – and, for us, not quite so exotic (George Borrow’s Wild Wales) – locations reached new heights. Music wasn’t to be left out of this bonanza as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy and Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish Symphonies bear witness. The Russians in particular loved sending musical postcards home from warmer climes than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Glinka, the ‘father of Russian music’ set the trend with his Jota Aragonesa and Summer Night in Madrid, then – staying in Spain – there’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, or – looking East instead of West – Balakirev’s Islamey.
Tchaikovsky, as his Capriccio Italien would seem to suggest, favoured Italy; the Capriccio being written after a trip to Rome in around 1880. Ten years later the composer was in Florence working on his opera The Queen of Spades when he noted down a theme that wasn’t designated to be used as part of the stage work. This theme eventually found its way into a string sextet written in response to the composer being made an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society. And, because of this thematic association with Florence, Tchaikovsky – rather misleadingly since, unlike the Capriccio Italien, the work has precious little to do with Italy – named the piece Souvenir de Florence.