Bohuslav Martinů ‘String Sextet’: Deep Harmonies

Bohuslav Martinů: String Sextet

Context

Bohuslav Martinů composed his String Sextet in under a week in May 1932. The sextet was popular and won awards, which surprised Martinů somewhat. Even though it was popular among Martinů’s contemporaries, the work itself was not published until 1947 – 14 years after it was premiered. It is quite surprising that Martinů composed this work in such a short space of time due to the depth of harmonies, the complex structures and emotional content. Nevertheless, this work has remained popular with advanced string players since its conception. 

 

The Music

Split into three movements, Martinů explores a range of different structures and time signatures to create rippling effects across the movements. 

 

Movement I – Lento – Allegro poco moderato

The opening movement is in a bipartite structure which sees a slow introduction lay the foundations for the slightly faster allegro section. The movement begins in C minor, with the Lento marking adding to the sombre feel to the music. Once the Allegro kicks in, the music runs through a number of different keys, but ends triumphantly in D major. Martinů’s fugal writing creates vivid voices within the ensemble which sometimes unite before going their separate ways once more. The melodies in this movement are very chromatic, but that isn’t always obvious due to Martinů’s rich textures and fluctuating movements. After a unison statement, the opening movement concludes one a root D major chord.

 

Movement II – Andantino – Allegretto poco moderato

The lamenting central movement once again showcases Martinů’s rich textural writing and colourful harmonic language. Through staggered entries and clever layering, each voice in the ensemble has its own line and purpose within the movement. After the sombre first half, the movement picks up some speed for the Allegretto section. Flashes of previous themes are heard, as well as a reprise of the opening material. As the music reaches the big climax of the movement, the dynamics begin to fade away, as do the voices within the ensemble. This movement concludes quietly and very gently. 

 

Movement III – Allegretto poco moderato

The spirited finale movement is the fastest of the three, and is perhaps the most melodically exciting. Clear cut melodies dominate this movement, as Martinů passes the theme through each section. Bold unison sections dominate over the quieter soli sections, and this gives the music the light and shade that makes it so thrilling. The fiery coda is packed full of melodies, rich harmonies and exciting speed which sees the ensemble unite for the final time to end this sextet in a scintillating style.

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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