SQS: Brahms String Sextet no. 1 in B flat, op 18

performed by the Amadeus Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz & William Pleeth, or a stunning performance below from the Israeli Chamber Project


Brahms’ chamber music is something special. I say that not being very familiar with it, really, but being far more eager to get to know it after hearing a few of these early works.

This piece marks our first official departure from the ‘quartet’ of String Quartet Saturday (apart from the solo cello works, which were more of a milestone). It’s a sextet. I’d originally decided to write about Brahms’ first quartet, which might seem to be the logical choice until you look at opus numbers. In 1860, when Brahms was younger than I am, he wrote this sextet, op. 18, but his first string quartet (one of the two that make up op. 51) didn’t come until 1873, after a piano trio, two piano quartets, a piano quintet, and two sextets, (not in that order). That is to say, Brahms hesitated with his first quartet the way he did with his first symphony. That’s why we have the sextet today.

Wikipedia also makes note that this sextet is a special one for another reason. Although Luigi Boccherini had written a dozen sextets much earlier on, there were apparently almost zero examples of purely string sextets until this work of Brahms’. While I haven’t listened to the Boccherini works, nor really to many other sextets, it seems perhaps that Brahms did with the sextet what Beethoven did with the piano trio, put his stamp on a form that didn’t have the imposing heritage that a quartet or symphony would, and made a smaller, but perhaps more noticeable splash. Perhaps that’s historically inaccurate and ignorant, but it made sense in my head.

And something else that may be equally inaccurate but makes sense in my head is what I feel is the reason the sextet didn’t really take off until after Brahms’ two works: it didn’t need to. We’ve talked about some of Haydn’s earliest quartets, the opp. 1 and 2 not even really being called quartets, but that they lacked some of the characteristic conversation and qualities that make the quartet the magical thing that it is, that intimate individuality, a unique dialogue. Well, listen to what Brahms does with his pairs of violins violas and cellos and think what an effort like this would have been like 50 years earlier. I’m not sure, but to my mind, it would have been redundant. You might not consider Brahms a radical modernist, but what he does here is richly romantic, detailed, complex, stunningly beautiful work, and I’m not sure that the classical era would have been ready to exploit the instrumentation in the way the young Bearded Wonder did here (although he was still probably not as memorably hirsute at this point).

It’s an epic work, clocking in at over half an hour with its four movements. He makes wonderful, symphonic, rich use of the possibilities of two violas and cellos, and the piece begins with the melody high in the first cello. I’m not going to try to pinpoint parts in the score and measure numbers and all the rest. Kelly Dean Hanson has already done that here, quite wonderfully. But I do want to mention a few luscious things about how this piece opens that kind of stick with us throughout the work.

For one, we have have two cellos. The possibilities! At points, the first cello plays way up in the first violin’s range, but for the beginning, we have a high cello and a low one, introducing a roundish, curving, delicate melody in 3/4. But you wouldn’t know it without looking at the score. By tying notes across bar lines, accenting weak beats and other little nifty tricks, Brahms skews the phrasing and meter of this 3/4, giving it a free, lyrical personality. I feel like this is a characteristic of much of his work, and I would say it creates depth, but perhaps interest is a more neutral word. There’s an intricacy, or a duality of sorts created. I don’t know. In any case, it’s these kinds of sometimes not-so-subtle things that make his work vibrant and interesting, and we see them throughout this piece.
The first theme of this first movement builds, with quite meaty tied-triplet passages in the violins eventually bringing us to the second theme, not shockingly different from the first, still in our ambiguous 3/4, at times more indicative of 6/8 than the first subject’s suggestion of a 4/4 meter. While this (at least to me) lack of striking contrast between our two themes of the first movement could seem… a letdown, to me what it says is that the journey in this work is not so small scale as to be contained to the exposition of this movement, but rather is a much larger arc. We’ll get to that, but what’s riveting about this movement is its development, how these not-very-dissimilar-seeming themes from the opening (exposition not repeated in my above-referenced recording) then intertwine and develop, how the music is at once increasingly more dense and complex, but suddenly transparent and simple. It is a truly heavenly eleven minutes of music, but nothing prepares us for what comes next. (The performers in the above video observe the repeat, bringing the first movement to about fifteen minutes.)

If you ever thought that just maybe the theme-and-variations form lacked narrative or interest or drama, check that sentiment at the door. Brahms’ second movement, marked andante, ma moderato, is in 2/4, and takes up only a few pages of score, but is truly epic. The opening theme from first viola makes me think of the beginning of the end of some epic Western flick (think the end of the Kill Bill series. I know Brahms would have hated any extramusical, programmatic references, but this movement is the epitome of spellbinding epic-ness. I hate to reduce it to some cliché-sounding film score idea, but it’s truly breathtaking what happens in this movement). In stark contrast with the first movement, the second movement’s 2/4 is crunchy, powerful, and decisive, march-like. One theme’s long notes contrast with sixteenth notes in the cello of the next, which ultimately slither around the ensemble before landing in breathtaking sixteenth-note triplets, suddenly sweeting down to piano and dolce. Cellos come alive with 32nd-note runs that stir the entire ensemble to greater energetic heights, and the variations continue to unfold a passionate, powerful outpouring of music that must be even more invigorating to play than it is to listen to, finally winding down with a D major chord.


In contrast with the almost-exhausting nature of the second movement, the third is rustic, dainty, friendly, and smile-inducing. Brahms throws us a wink with more of his 3/4 trickery. It’s quick, allegro molto, and just when you think things couldn’t get any more enjoyable, the trio outdoes the scherzo for amicable cheer, another smile on the face, but not in any sappy, cheap way. The scherzo is less than half the length of any of the other movements of this truly-epic work, coming in at just over three minutes. The contribution of this movement, to me, is less to develop the overall storyline and more to provide a brief rest, a refreshing ray of sunshine after something so dramatic.

But it’s with the beginning of the final movement that we begin to get an overall view of the arch that Brahms has cast. First cello begins with the exact same notes that opened the first movement, and this movement’s 2/4 sounds as much like 3/4 as did the first movement 2/4. Interesting trick, Johnny. It brings the whole piece together, but not in a stuffy, repetitive, or pedantic manner. It’s new but familiar. As if this piece weren’t classically-structured enough, with a sonata movement, a theme-and-variations, and scherzo, we are presented with a rondo. This movement takes up about a third of my score’s pages, with no direct repeat instructions but constant transition and restatement in a long line that wraps up the piece in a satisfyingly vibrant manner.

After listening to a piece like this, one might start to think that Brahms’ apprehension was to make his ideas fit in something as compact and transparent as a string quartet; I’m not sure. The overwhelming impression I have of this work is that it’s a work that’s too big for a string quartet (be that good or bad), but aggressively limber and expressive, much more than a symphonic work could be. It apparently made an impression, because in the years that followed, people like Brahms’ friend Dvorak, as well as Tchaikovsky, Raff, Reger and Schoenberg (among others) would all write sextets. Way to be a trendsetter.

In any case, we’ve moved outside of the realm of the string quartet earlier than I’d expected (as if there weren’t enough quartets alone), but this has been one of the most richly rewarding, enjoyable listens I’ve had to anything in a long time. The Brahms of the intimate chamber setting is different from the Brahms of the concert hall, the big, bold first symphony. We hear a vibrant young ambitious genius, somehow eager yet hesitant to make a splash (maybe?). This work is vivid and expressive, solidly traditional and masterful but fresh and young. Oh the things we have left to enjoy of The Bearded Wonder. There’s more from him this week, so stay tuned. In light of today’s hefty piece and one next week, we won’t have an SQS post this coming Saturday, so take the time to savor this sextet, or prepare for what’s coming next Sunday, a work I’d say is of equally epic proportions. Stay tuned.

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