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String Sextet "The Tempest"

Instrumentation: two violins, two violas, two cellos
Duration: 11:00
Year Composed: 2011
Commissioner: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for Radio 2
  1. This rough magic...
  2. ...I here abjure


Complete Audio

I. This rough magic...

II. ...I here abjure


Program Notes

The famous speech, "Ye elves of hills", from Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which Prospero describes his magical powers before finally renouncing them, inspired this two-movement work. Subtitled "This rough magic...", the first movement opens with a series of phrases that deliberately sound incomplete. Modulations, tempo fluctuations, starts and stops, interruptions, dynamic contrasts, a brooding mood—all these combine to depict Prospero's inner turmoil. Then, intruding upon this unsettled atmosphere, come the distant murmurs of an approaching storm whose arrival in full force is a violent affair. Now we experience the earthly devastation that Prospero can unleash, of the kind that caused the shipwreck of his brother Antonio's crew. The clearing storm returns us to Prospero's inner world, now somewhat lightened—no more starts and stops—yet strangely unresolved.

The sextet begins in E minor but soon modulates away, the starting tonality not returning until the second movement, subtitled "...I here abjure", firmly anchored in E major. The work thus follows the familiar narrative from darkness to light that Beethoven made famous in his Fifth Symphony but deployed elsewhere, as in his last piano sonata, Op. 111, with a first movement in C minor and a second in C major—a score I had on my desk as I wrote the sextet.

With the music's lyrical and expansive refrain, along with suspension-rich episodes, I tried to evoke the hopeful and optimistic mood that Prospero invokes (the "heavenly music") as much as the inner peace that he ultimately claims for himself. The past lingers in memory, however, and so the heavy, tormented motto from the first movement makes a final appearance.

The sextet's harmonic idiom is decidedly neo-Romantic. I don't always write in such a traditional style but this is what the subject matter inspired in me. Listeners will undoubtedly hear the influence of Brahms, whose two sextets have never been equaled; in the first movement, that of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, a twentieth-century sextet masterpiece; and in the storm, echoes of the kind of searing intensity Shostakovich does so well.

I wish to thank Julian Armour and Christopher Plummer for their contributions to the work's concept. Excerpts from the sextet were performed at Music and Beyond's Christopher Plummer - Music & Shakespeare in Ottawa on July 7, 2011. I am especially grateful to Jill LaForty, a longtime producer at the CBC and champion of Canadian composers and performers, for her perseverance in bringing the project to fruition. —R.R.


Performances

  • Jul 8 & 9, 2016—Music & Beyond Festival Orchestra, Christopher Plummer - Music & Shakespeare (Dominion Chalmers, Ottawa, Canada) [excerpts]
  • Sep 28, 2013—Christopher Plummer: Shakespeare in Word & Music
    Eric Harvie Theatre, Banff Centre (Banff, AB) [excerpts
  • Jun 16 & 20, 2012—Ottawa Chamber Players
    ("The Signal", CBC Radio 2)
  • Mar 19 & 20, 2012—Ottawa Chamber Players
    (Maxwell's Bistro, Ottawa, Canada) [complete]
  • Jul 7, 2011—Music & Beyond Festival Orchestra, Christopher Plummer - Music & Shakespeare (Dominion Chalmers, Ottawa, Canada) [excerpts]

Reviews

"...a sophisticated work in two movements. The first, entitled This rough magic, is brooding and then agitated, the second more affirmative. Together they cast a powerful spell."
—Richard Todd (Ottawa Citizen)

Score Perusal & Parts Rental

For score perusal and parts rental information, contact Robert Rival.