The sestina is among the most virtuosic poetic forms. Elizabeth Bishop, one of its masters, called it “a sort of stunt.” In the first stanza, each of six lines ends with a different word. Subsequent stanzas use the same six words at line-ends, but in a different order which is determined by a fixed pattern. Each word is used in a new light every time it appears, creating a poignant counterpoint of form and meaning. The sestina ends with an envoi in which all six words appear in the span of three lines.
This musical sestina is made up of short, six-phrase melodies inspired by movements from Bach partitas, each phrase ending with one of six notes. The order of these notes differs from movement to movement, following the same sequence as the poetic form. It is revealed in the final movement that these six notes belong to a favorite chorale melody of Bach, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (Sing to the Lord a New Song).