scoring: fl/picc, ob, bcl, vln, vc, hpsd
composed: 1972, rev. 1978
status: available for performance
Original version broadcast Tue 26th Sep 1972, 16:15 on BBC Radio 3, by the Contemporary Harpsichord Ensemble (Sebastian Bell, Edwin Roxburgh, Ross Pople, Harold Lester) with David Woodcock, violin, and William Sweeney, basset clarinet. (Broadcast repeated Mon 4th Jul 1977, 21:45 on BBC Radio 3.)
Revised version first performed 13 December 1978, QEH, by the Redcliffe Ensemble, conducted by Edwin Roxburgh.
Sestina B is the second of three works which interpret in contrasting ways an expressive and formal model deriving from the Provencal verse-form: six stanzas of six lines, permuting six rhymes to create a continuity where the same words recur in new contexts.
In this work the harpsichord is a soloist playing four related but non-repeating sections in a toccata-like style; at the same time the other instruments provide six sections permuting six different events in strong contrast to the harpsichord part. In these sections strings and wind enjoy a mutual independence which allows each group to give variant accounts of any one of them, with the result that they overlap in the same way that the harpsichord overlaps them both. The interaction of three distinct classes of timbre, each linked to formal divisions, is intended to emphasise in musical terms the characteristic polarisation found in the verse-form, where continuity and sense are in deliberate counterpoint with the formal means which gave them expression.
The scoring of the original 1972 version is unclear. Radio Times lists "flute, cor anglais, clarinet, violin, cello and harpsichord" but also lists a basset clarinettist, which is inconsistent. On the other hand, Grove 6 lists "flute, oboe, violin, viola, viola da gamba, harpsichord" which is also presumably wrong. Perhaps the unusual details of basset clarinet and viola da gamba are correct, as they match the harpsichord at least superficially?