Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov - String Sextet In A Major

In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered the position of professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music.  He accepted the position although he was still an officer in the Russian Navy and had to teach his classes in uniform. Of more immediate concern was Rimsky-Korsakov's lack of formal musical education. He had already composed works for orchestra that had received glowing reviews, but he composed them by his natural talent and keen ear. He consulted his friend and mentor Pyotr Tchaikovsky who suggested he best get busy studying. Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of these years of study:
I practiced a lot and studied Bach’s oeuvre in particular, appreciating his genius, whereas before when I didn’t know his works well, I was inclined to follow the opinion of Balakirev, who called him a “composition machine”
Rimsky-Korsakov threw himself into a rigid program of self-education and came out of it a master. While he was studying he concentrated on technical exercises and did next to no original composition. After his crash course in theory and counterpoint, he began to compose works for smaller chamber ensembles and in 1876 entered a competition for compositions for chamber ensemble in two categories; works for strings alone and works for piano and one or more instruments. He entered a work in each category; the String Sextet In A Major and the Quintet in B-major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon.

Neither one of his compositions won a prize, although the String Sextet got an honorable mention. The composer set aside the sextet and it was almost forgotten. It was finally published in 1912 after Rimsky-Korsakov's death, but that addition was lost after the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The sextet was reprinted during the soviet era, but went out of print. The work has since been reprinted and is heard on occasion.

The String Sextet is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace - The first movement begins with a theme theme that is solidly in the home key of A major. This theme is passed along the instruments until the next theme begins. This second theme resembles the first in mood, and the exposition gives a feeling of charm and grace.The development section is short and maintains the mood. Rimsky-Korsakov's study of counterpoint is in evidence periodically as themes are played off against each other. A slight repetitive climax leads to the recapitulation as the main theme returns with a more elaborate accompaniment. The movement ends with a short coda.

II. Rondo fugato. Allegretto grazioso - The composer was rather proud of this movement, a six-voiced fugue, along with other contrapuntal sections.

III. Scherzo. Vivace alla saltarello - A saltarello is a fast Italian dance. This one is just that, fast and somewhat furious. The middle section is in contrast as it is slower and has a theme that is treated contrapuntally.

IV. Andante espressivo - The only slow movement in the sextet begins with a mellow theme for the cello. The music proceeds slowly and the tune is highlighted with complex counter melodies and a rich accompaniment as it moves from the cello to violin.

V. Finale. Allegro molto - The instruments bounce a rondo theme back and forth and in unison. Slight slower episodes give way to the rondo theme, and the movement ends with a short coda.

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