Krzysztof Penderecki – Sextet (2000)

Keening fiddles and shuddering thumping basses vaulted Krzysztof Penderecki to international acclaim with his shocking “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” from 1960. It is a fitting response to the slaughter of World War Two and the indignities of the Iron Curtain that colored his childhood and adolescence in Poland. (This animated score video is highly recommended.) The Atomic Age had arrived for music.

Nevertheless, like others of his Polish contemporaries, within a decade or so Penderecki seemed to have reached the limits of expression provided by the block techniques he pioneered. He began to incorporate tonal elements and clean melodic lines. He also began writing for smaller ensembles that seem the antithesis of the sprawling sound masses of his early career. If the avant-garde expressed horror at what we had become, perhaps the new romanticism expressed yearning for what we had lost.

Penderecki’s Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, and piano is possibly the apex of his transformation. The music is quite at home with Bartok and Shostakovich. Skittering chromatic gestures stalk jagged melodies that never seem quite to come into focus. The insistent chromatic lines are one of the most striking features of the piece. Many post-war composers have avoided heavy use of chromatic scales because they were such a cliche in the nineteenth century. But Penderecki’s obsession with them in the Sextet has given them an unsettling new kind of zombie life. Underlying the chatter the piece is haunted by a minor-key dirge that ultimately subsumes everything else. The message is clear: have all the fun you want, but the end bears only bitterness and loss.

The horn part is challenging but playable, covering a range from written C3 to A5. One of the most atypical technical challenges is the many low-range stopped notes (including C3) with no time to insert a stop-mute. Also noteworthy is that at the beginning of the second movement the horn is marked “da lontano”—“from a distance”. At first glance this instruction might seem to be an expressive metaphor, but a quick review of performance videos reveals that the composer means it literally. That is, the player arises and moves to a position off stage or at least well-removed from the rest of the ensemble. The score (but not the part) also contains a direction for the player to return to the ensemble later in the movement.

On balance, the individual parts of the Sextet seem not as difficult as those of, say, the Ligeti Horn Trio. But the ensemble challenges are much greater. Without a conductor, expect to spend many hours of rehearsal working out the rhythmic intricacies.

The piece was composed for the great cellist and conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich along with a group of his friends. The horn player in the group was Radovan Vlatkovic. While YouTube offers a number of excellent performances to choose from, the most interesting may be the linked video by “Rostropovich and Friends” featuring Vlatkovic as the horn player. The sheet music is readily available from the usual sources and not ridiculously expensive.

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