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June 15, 2017

Best String Sextets

String sextets are chamber works for six players and are usually written for an ensemble consisting of two violins, two violas, and two cellos, but there also exist rare combinations for three violins, viola and two cellos or three violins, two violas and cello.

The string sextet was "invented" by Boccherini in 1776. The most famous string sextets were written by Brahms and Schoenberg, and we have several more examples from both the 19th and early 20th c. Excellent are also the sextets by Korngold, Schulhoff and Martinu. But the total original literature is not especially large, so we often find as additions to concerts the first two movements of the incomplete sextet by Borodin, or the string-sextet Introduction to Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio.

Best string sextets:

1. Luigi Boccherini, Sextuor No. 5 in D major Op 23 (1776)
Boccherini experimented with the limits of chamber music and was always on the lookout for new forms. One such new form was the string sextet, a combination in advance of the times, which on the other hand also means that Boccherini's six sextets Op 23 barely left an echo in musical history, despite being full of originality. In contrast to the double trios of the period (where instruments were simply doubled for effect), Boccherini goes much farther and gives equal importance to each instrument. He is also able to resolve the problem of four-part harmony for six instruments, mainly by means of a brilliant use of unison, not only in the basses but also in the violins and violas. This leads to a truly captivating sound quality. The six sextets Op 23 are quite extraordinarily beautiful pieces, mostly contemplative in mood. No 5 opens with a Grave for muted strings which features some remarkable and highly expressive decorative writing. This is followed by a vivid Allegro. The Minuetto is dedicated to pathos expressed in imitative contrapuntal writing, but the trio is full of dance-like rhythms. This is capped by a joyous Finale. It is a pity Boccherini only wrote six string sextets; another effort in the combination for six instruments were his sextets for flute and strings Op 16, as well as some of his Nocturni (especially those of Op 38).
Recording listened to: Boccherini, Sextets Op. 23 1, 2 & 5 by Ensemble 415 on Harmonia Mundi.

2. Anton Wranitzky, String Sextet in G (around 1800)
Although little known today, the Bohemians Anton and Paul Wranitzky were key figures in the musical life of Vienna at the turn of the 18th c. Anton Wranitzly studied with Haydn and worked most of his life at the court of Prince Lobkowitz. His chamber music output consists of more than 60 works. In the sextet Wranitzky seeks to exploit unusual sonorities and combinations of thematic lead and accompaniment such as are typical for the rare ensemble music of a sextet. The opening movement is in sonata form and held together by bustling scale patterns. The second movement is comparatively fast moving, using decorated versions of the main theme. The final movement starts with a slow introduction that sets up a faster section of a folk-like character.
Recording listened to: Wranitzky, String Quintet and Sextet, by Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics.

3. Louis Spohr, String Sextet in C major Op 140 (1848)
One of the finest late works by Spohr, said to be inspired by the optimism and exuberance of the "revolution year" 1848. The new medium of the string sextet (it is doubtful that Spohr knew Boccherini, or the meager handful of string sextets written since then) is handled resourcefully, making good use of the sonority of the ensemble, but also exploring the possibility of creating contrasts between different groupings, or treating the first of each pair of instruments in a concertante manner. The Allegro Moderato is characterized by thematic expansiveness, but there is also more delicate work, such as the opening trill that runs throughout the movement. Much of the time, the first viola is the thematic leader. The Larghetto begins with a hymn-like theme. Scherzo and Finale are intertwined; the wistful Scherzo also features a waltz-like section. The Presto finale is full of violinistic brilliance, and capped by the surprising return of the Scherzo, before it all ends in a Prestissimo.
Recording listened to: Spohr, String Sextet etc. by Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.

4. Johannes Brahms, String Sextet no 1 in B flat Major Op 18 (1860)
This is one of the truly great works of 19th c. chamber music. Brahms probably took his cue from Spohr, as his two sextets were composed only a good decade later and feature similar luxurious textures. Brahms wrote his first string sextet in 1860, the second one followed 5 years later. While the second one is more complex, I like the first one best for its broad, typical Brahmsian melodies. Brahms regarded the string quartet as a "hallowed" genre, just like the symphony, and wanted to thoroughly prepare himself well before attempting it. So the form of the string sextet with its extra instruments to aid with harmony and texture provided an ideal opportunity for him to "get his feet wet." The 27-year old Brahms fully explores the sonorities at his disposal, with the violas often playing in parallel harmony. In the first movement the first cello presents the opening theme against the bass provided by the second cello. The movement is in sonata form with an exposition that ends with the suggestion of a Viennese waltz. The following Andante is a set of variations on a theme of a noble character, the most famous movement of the sextet. The Beethovian Scherzo is concise and vigorous and the main theme of the Finale is in outline similar to that of the opening Allegro. In all, this is sunny and melodious music.
Recording listened to: Brahms, String Sextets, by The Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion.

5. Niels Gade, String Sextet in E flat Major, Op.44 (1865)
The Danish composer Niels Gade was a pupil of Mendelssohn and his teacher greatly influenced his style. The work starts with an elegiac Andante introduction in which the main theme of the first movement is introduced (built on a pervasive falling semitone). In the Allegro vivace that theme is then developed in a passionate way. The lyrical second subject has a winning quality. This is followed by an elf-like, typically Mendelssohnian Scherzo (without separate trio). The Andantino is an abridged sonata form in which the recapitulation ingeniously takes the function of the missing development section. Both Scherzo and Andantino are built from semitonally-obsessed material. The sextet closes with a big-boned Molto vivace, which is based on an idea similar to the one that started the first movement; it is similarly prefaced by a slow movement.
Recording listened to: The Johannes Ensemble on Kontrapunkt.

6. Antonín Dvořák, Sextet in A Major Op 48 B. 80 (1878)
Dvořák's first work to be premiered outside Bohemia, the fruit of a period in his life that he could concentrate on composition thanks to a government grant. It is easy to hear that the sextet was composed at the same time as the Slavonic Dances - it is written in a recognizable Czech style and one of the first works of Dvořák's maturity. The two inner movements are stylizations of the elegiac Dumka (a folksong from Little Russia) and lively Furiant (a Czech folk dance). The first movement is written in the classical sonata form (with three themes), and the last movement is composed in the form of a theme and six variations. The work is typical for its sunny atmosphere, melodic wealth and rich tone color.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios.

7. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence for String Sextet Op 70 (1890)
This string sextet (which is perhaps better known in the later version for string orchestra) was named "Souvenir de Florence" because the composer sketched one of the work's principal themes while visiting Florence, where at that time he also composed his opera The Queen of Spades. The first movement is in sonata form and begins boldly with an energetic main theme. The second lyrical theme is the above mentioned Italian souvenir - the only one in a sextet which is mainly Russian in character. The coda of this movement borrows a phrase from The Queen of Spades. The Adagio second movement opens with a kind of slow version of the first movement’s main theme, as an elegant serenade which however embeds a whimsical scherzo characterized by a pizzicato accompaniment. The third movement is an intermezzo that is all carefree brightness; its trio section reminds us that Tchaikovsky had The Nutcracker in his head at the time. In the Allegro vivace finale, a theme of folklore character is subjected to various kinds of treatment, including an unexpected fugato just before the coda. Like other chamber music by Tchaikovsky, this sextet evidences more naturalness and geniality than many of his large-scale compositions with their over-the-top emotionalism.
Recording listened to: Yong Quartet on Telarc (with complete string quartets).
Also on Youtube in a performance at the Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival Utrecht.

8. Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night"), Op 4 (1900)
Another work that is often heard in a version for string orchestra, but that started life as chamber music. The one-movement string sextet was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, which describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. It ends with the man's bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman. The poem as well as Schoenberg's music were shocking for their time: filled by a new, anti-bourgeois sexual morality as well as the idea of an all-conquering Eros that shuns every convention. Schoenberg was not yet in his Twelve-tone period, but the sextet is written in a highly advanced harmonic idiom, with a rich chromaticism (deriving from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) and frequent use of musical phrases which undermine the metrical boundaries. The sextet follows the poem's structure, which consists of five stanzas of differing length; it is in fact based on a rondo-like ABACA pattern, with the recurring A section representing the moonlit walk, the B section the woman's confession and the C section the man's noble reply.
Recording listened to: Leipziger Streichquartett on MDG (with 3rd string quartet). 

9. Hakon Børresen, String Sextet in G Major Op. 5 (1901)
Hakon Børresen (1876-1954) was born in Copenhagen and studied with Johann Svendsen at the Royal Danish Conservatory. His String Sextet was dedicated to Edvard Grieg, who spoke highly about it. Borresen was a conservative composer who remained firmly steeped in a romantic / post-romantic musical language, mostly based on Brahms. The Allegro moderato, ma energico, opens with an energetic, Nordic-sounding main theme. It is followed by a genial scherzo and an introspective Adagio characterized by very long-lined melodies. The finale is again a big-boned movement in a Nordic style.
P.S. There exist several more string sextets by little known Nordic composers, as Ölander and Norman.
Recording listened to: Copenhagen Classic on CPO (with 2nd string quartet).

10. Reinhold Gliere, Third Sextet Op 11 (1905)
Gliere dedicated his Third Sextet to Mitrofan Belaiev, a great patron of music and also music publisher; many of Gliere's chamber music works premiered during the musical gatherings Belaiev organized every Friday. In the Third Sextet Gliere tried to capture the musical preferences of Belaiev (which were also his own): welding Moscow's tradition of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev with the Petersburg composer group The Five, in serene and positive music. The opening Allegro is light and folksy in character, reminding one of Borodin. The Larghetto is filled with heartfelt lyricism, an instrumental cantilena as emotionally charged as a human voice. The third movement, Allegro, is a quintessential Russian scherzo with its juxtaposition of contrasting themes. The final Allegro vivace returns to the festive mood of the first movement. Its colorful, full-bodied palette approximates the orchestral level. A sextet that abounds in fascinating ideas.
Recording listened to: Berlin Philharmonic String Octet on MDG (with Octet by Gliere).

11. Max Reger, String Sextet in F major Op 118 (1911)
Reger had firmly promised the String Sextet for the Gewandhaus Chamber Music of March 1911, but the composer found the filling of this obligation to be a hard task: Reger rejected whole measures and composed them again. In October 1910 he destroyed almost the complete first movement. By November he was still far away from finishing, and he had to work even during the Christmas holidays to complete the sextet in time. But at the premiere on March 12, Reger was enthusiastically celebrated: while striving for orchestral sound, he still remained within the framework of chamber music. The first movement, Allegro energico, is robust and rough hewn. In the second movement, Vivace, we find an effective alternation of dramatic and quiet sections. The third movement, Largo con grand espressione, features a deeply moving chorale. The finale, Allegro commodo, is again full of commotion and dramatic contrasts.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Villa Musica on MDG (with Clarinet Quintet)

12. Erich Korngold, String Sextet Op 10 (1916)
Korngold’s finest chamber work and a direct descendant of the sextets of Brahms. The luxurious sextet combines the melodic sweetness of late German romanticism with flecks of dissonance and moments of anxiety - making it sound quite modern. It encompasses an astonishing range of moods within its four-movement scheme. Korngold’s operatic talent is foreshadowed in the lyrical and romantic first subject of the opening Allegro. A calmer melody serves as the second theme. The second movement broods in melancholy. The delightful waltz-like third movement intermezzo contains a variation on a theme from Korngold's Sinfonietta in B Major. In the exuberant Presto finale we find some exotic, Bartokian-sounding elements.
Recording listened to: The Flesch String Quartet on ASV (with 3rd string quartet).

13. Erwin Schulhoff, Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos (1920-24)
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Jewish Czech composer, who was born in Prague, and who studied in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. In Leipzig he was taught by Max Reger, who guided him towards a neo-classical style. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s Schulhoff allied himself to the left-wing avant-garde. The Nazis arrested him in 1939; three years later he died in the Wulzburg concentration camp in Bavaria. The fist movement of the string sextet reveals the influence of Schoenberg, although the music is not consciously atonal. It is however strongly chromatic and demonstrates a deeply depressive emotional state. The second movement is a long-breathed cantilena. This is followed by a tempestuous burlesca, fiendishly difficult to play. The last movement is a despondent Molto adagio. "A rough-hewn work of deep brooding fearfulness," as the Hyperion sleeve notes put it.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios. 
Also on Youtube in a performance at the Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival Utrecht.  

14. Julius Roentgen, Sextet in G Major (1931)
Of Roentgen's substantial output of 650 works, 100 were composed after his retirement to Bilthoven, in the last seven years of his life. Julius Roentgen often wrote chamber music for performance at home, by himself with his family (his sons were professional string players) and musical visitors (these included such luminaries as Grieg and Pablo Casals). As he wrote for private entertainment, Roentgen didn't try to break new ground - this String Sextet, too, is not a work that one would ever associate with the sound world of the 1930s. But it is full of energy and drama; it also possesses a brevity and concision that invest it with a serenade-like charm. It is in four short movements, of which the third is in variation style.
Recording listened to: Julius Roentgen, Chamber Music, Arc Ensemble, on RCA Red Seal.

15. Bohuslav Martinů, Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos (1932)
Written astonishingly quickly, in just a week. The sextet displays the "progressive tonality" that would be characteristic for the mature works by Martinu. There are three movements: the first Allegro poco moderato is preceded by a short Lento; this is followed by an Andantino which encloses a scherzo; and the work concludes with a short Allegretto poco moderato. A very vital work, that is a real string sextet and not a quartet with two extra instruments.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios.
Posts about classical music include:
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part One 
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Two
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Three