COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 47

String Sextet: Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (1970, rev. 1997)

for String Sextet (Two Violins, Two Violas, Two Cellos)

  • Variations
  • Motet

Duration: 24 min.

Dedication: to Sarah and Paul Vanderwerf

Recording: Albany TROY553

Premiere: 1998; Vanderwerf Ensemble; Northwestern Univ.

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Attracted I suppose to the Dvorák sextet, op. 48, and the two Brahms sextets, opp. 18 and 36, I ventured in 1970 to write a sextet of my own. From the outset, I wanted the added symphonic richness afforded by six parts, but with each of the players having plenty of developmental and contrapuntal linear activity, as befits well-written chamber music. Somehow I decided on two equal movements, the one (variations) to be the darker, more instrumental in attitude and closer to classical-period forms, and the other (motet) the brighter, more vocal, and akin to Renaissance attitude. The Lutheran hymn Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland stimulated me, much more in the mid-baroque setting by Praetorius than in the fully-tonal (and thus predictable, if better-known) J. S. Bach version. I decided to make this the crown of the sextet, barely—and devilishly—hinted at in the first movement, more comfortably beneath the surface in the second, and finally sung forth in all its glory near the end, replete with ribbons of contrapuntal decoration and enhancement.

All manner of other invention occurred to me, various stretti, augmentations, quasi-recitativos, and the like, including a high point to the first movement in which a fugato in six parts and 9/8 meter would develop into a 9-against-4 climax. For a quarter-century the piece was never performed, as befits something so ambitious, I suppose. In the early 90s, I made the acquaintance of Paul Vanderwerf, violinist, then a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. When he and ensembles among his colleagues performed and recorded my string chamber music, it was clear to me that new opportunities were available for the sextet. I took a “long hard look” at it and decided all the structure and pretense were rock-solid, but that much of the connective material was mechanical or pedestrian. So, in 1996-97, I revised the work, and dedicated it to Paul and his wife Sarah. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)