• Simon Holt
  • String Sextet:the torturer's horse (2009)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

This work was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble with funds provided by Wigmore Hall and PRS for Music Foundation. It was first performed by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall, London, on 23rd March 2011.

  • string sextet
  • 16 min

Programme Note

The title the torturer’s horse comes from the poem Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, but the idea behind the music is more related to the painting Landscape with a man killed by a snake by Nicolas Poussin, which is in the National Gallery in London. The piece is concerned with how real, tragic events are happening all around us but normal life carries on regardless. The Poussin is a large painting with a grim event happening in only the
smallest part of the canvas – the bottom left hand corner – witnessed fully by one man who is in turn observed by somebody who can’t see what has sent him into a panic and is, in turn, panicked by him. The deeper you look into the landscape around the event the more you see that people are going about their daily lives as if nothing else is happening.
The piece is in four sections (labelled A, B, C and D in the score) of about 3½ minutes each. All the sections are in 3/2 time, there are no accelerandos and the metronome mark is always minim = 48. The material is incredibly pared down, like a desert landscape; rock, skull, dust, dead grass.
Essentially the piece consists of the same music four times with simple variations. But, in one of the sections, an event happens that lasts about 1' 10" before subsiding into the very quiet music from before. The event itself is wild. Is it Icarus falling from the sky, or is it the man being killed by the snake and the violence and panic of Poussin’s painting?
The music can be ordered in different ways. The players have four options as to the order of the sections and should decide between them which order they want to use. The sections are to be played attacca, therefore with as little gap between them as possible. The four options are:
1. C A B D
2. A C D B
3. B D C A
4. D B A C
The players should position themselves in a wide semi-circle; round the back of the curve of the Wigmore Hall, for example.