Hyperion Records

Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos
composer
May 1932; first performed by the Kroll Sextet in Washington in April 1933; published in 1947

Recordings
'Martinů & Schulhoff: String Sextets' (CDH55321)
Martinů & Schulhoff: String Sextets
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55321  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Details
Movement 1: Lento – Allegro poco moderato
Track 1 on CDH55321 [6'50] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Andantino – Allegro scherzando – Tempo 1
Track 2 on CDH55321 [4'40] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Allegretto poco moderato
Track 3 on CDH55321 [4'01] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos
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In less than a week in May 1932 Martinu composed his String Sextet. This work carried off the First Prize from 145 entries but he ignored the telegram informing him of his success, thinking it a joke played on him by his friends. The much-needed money stayed in his bank for some weeks until his wife and friends convinced him it was genuine, yet the Sextet, first given in Washington in April 1933 by the Kroll Sextet, was not published until 1947.

A note on the score states ‘double-bass may be added for use by string orchestra’, the part being printed at the foot of the score. This was clearly an afterthought, perhaps prompted by the imminent publishing of the piece fifteen years later and an attempt to obtain more performances. Martinu never heard the Sextet in the string orchestra version. The posthumous premiere was given by Paul Sacher in October 1959.

Martinu’s Sextet was written astonishingly quickly, in less than a week, which makes its structural originality and organic unity all the more surprising. The structural originality is such that the music combines at the same time duple, triple, quintuple and sextuple forms. The Sextet has three movements, hence triple (tri-partite) structure; but the first movement is bi-partite (slow, fast), hence a duple structure; the central movement is tri-partite (slow, fast, slow). Now, allied to the outer movements, we also have (with the Allegro scherzando of the central movement forming the fulcrum) a quintuple structure. But the tempo sequence, across the movements, is (i) Slow–Fast, (ii) Slow–Fast–Slow, (iii) Fast, producing a sextuple tempo structure. Such a unique multiple structure suggests some deeper processes are afoot in the music itself.

However interesting this basic ground-plan appears, it is the continually evolving musical argument of the Sextet which is consistently gripping, an early example in this composer’s work of ‘progressive tonality’—the evolution of one key, or tonal centre, from another. In this case, Martinu tackles one of the more difficult of such evolutions, that of adjacent tonalities. His Sextet begins in the depths of C minor in a mood of uncertain pessimism (almost, astoundingly, where Erwín Schulhoff’s Sextet ended), but concludes in a brilliantly vivid D major. Indeed, there are several other remarkable musical connections common to both works: the strong chromaticism of their first movements; the structural functions of texture (in both slow movements); the unifying cell of a few notes (Martinu’s opening Largo, rising from the lowest region, contains as its kernel the intervals of a semitone and a third); the challenge, in the tonal scheme of Martinu’s first movement, of the same flat supertonic (D flat) which destabilized Schulhoff’s work (but which, in the Martinu, behaves rather more in accordance with classical procedures). Here it falls to A flat, then semitonally to G, the dominant of C, in which key the movement, its anger subsided, ends unambiguously in the major mode with the assurance of E natural. The slow movement’s tonality rises by a semitone from E to F (in which key C is also the dominant, showing therefore that the ultimate tonality of the work cannot be C) and begins fugally as a double exposition, but only with regard to texture, not treatment: the kernel’s third now falls (after a counter-exposition of this material) to D major, in which key the music pauses. Another rise would take us to E flat (further destabilizing the original tonality) and in this key the central Allegretto scherzando dances across the fabric of the music with myriad textural changes. As this is, structurally, the centre of the work, it cannot rise to E natural (this would set in train the earlier harmonic sequence), so it must fall, to D, the high octaves of which on the violins usher in the recapitulation of the opening fugato which ends the movement a little uncertainly, but quietly, in F major. To confirm the major tonality of F, A natural has to be established—and is quietly asserted at the beginning of the finale in the bass. But this finale has other problems to consider. It has to resolve the emotional implications of the work (the enervation at the end of the second movement has to be overcome); to resolve the evolving harmonic demands of the Sextet, and the inherent pulse-structure: an extended fast ending in a mood of well-being is called for; finally, the full working of the Sextet’s basic organism has not yet been completed. Every one of these demands is fully met in this brilliant, light-hearted (but never flippant) finale, whose language may remind some of later Vaughan Williams (Dives and Lazarus) or Tippett (Concerto for Double String Orchestra and String Quartet No 2). The explanation lies in the common pentatonic, even Celtic, nature of these composers’ folk-based syntax, one which was foreign to the cosmopolitan Schulhoff. As Martinu’s Sextet reaches its conclusion, the intial destabilization must be faced. The pulse slows organically and a bare C–G in the bass (the last connection with Schulhoff’s Sextet) ushers the dance-like finale in a second time, which leaps another fifth, a vivid A natural clearly exposed as the dominant of D major, in which bright key the work triumphantly ends.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1992

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