This work is a huge surprise. It holds a special place amongst all Tchaikovsky’s work for its mood of mysterious and enlightened contemplation that has been a feature of so many composers’ late works. The only other major late work that he wrote was the Symphony with Harp. The association of both works with the harp, an instrument whose sound reflects some ideal world rather than day-to-day reality, lends the two compositions a feeling of transition to a new spiritual plane. Another Russian composer, Petr Klimov, has commented that the music of the Sextet is full of light, not with the blinding noonday sun, but with the soft rays of a setting sun in autumn.
The opening Allegro is a kaleidoscope of different images refracting the surface glitter of the surrounding world, pausing only in the unhurriedly unfolding second subject that seems to look beyond the surface to an unsteady reality. This is first played by the French horn and by the clarinet in the reprise. The Andante divides the instruments into three independent timbre groups. The main group is the trio of oboe, clarinet and bassoon, whose theme is interrupted by short phrasesplayed by the harp. A third group of flute, muted French horn and harmonics of the harp play faint echoes of the main theme, underscoring the otherworldly mystery of this strange movement. The Scherzo’s main theme is unusually orchestrated with single notes played by different combinations of instruments.
In this perpetually surprising little work, the biggest surprise is the extraordinarily moving Largo finale. The French horn leads the way with a simple hymn-like melody that gradually works towards a deeply felt fortissimo climax and then fades away. It is particularly fitting that this music is being played in a church.