Brahms String Sextet in G, op. 36

performed by the Amadeus quartet with Cecil Aronowitz and William Pleeth, or below by the Alberni Quartet with Roger Best and Moray Welsh

(cover image by Brooke Lark)

If you have, like I used to have, any doubt that where Brahms truly excelled was in his chamber music, you should go back and listen to the op. 34 piano quintet, for it is a pinnacle of his chamber work and a piece of intense emotion and pull. In contrast with the darkness of that work, though, today’s sextet, of the following year, is much brighter.

You might think, after listening to the much darker, more brooding quintet, that this piece feels like throwing the windows open and letting the sunlight and fresh air in, and that may in fact be what Brahms was doing. The piece was composed, says Wikipedia, “in the comfortable country surroundings of Lichtental, near Baden-Baden.” Brahms liked his nature hikes and things, and he’s certainly not the first composer to let his surroundings into his music.

The work was published by Simrock and first performed, of all places, in Boston on October 11, 1866. Wikipedia cites James Keller’s Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide when making this statement, and he does in fact say (on page 102) that it was premiered on that date “at a concert of the Mendelssohn Quintet Club in Boston Massachusetts, played by William Schultze, Karl Hamm, Thomas Ryan, Eduard Heindl, Rudolph Hennig, and Alexander Heindl.”

He also tells us that the European premiere was on November 20 of the same year “in the Great Hall of the Zurich Casino.” John Palmer at AllMusic tells us entirely differently, saying that  the piece was published in 1866 “and the first performance followed on February 3, 1867, in Vienna.” Maybe that’s the first in Vienna, or the first after it was published, or both, but it seems not to be the first.

The sextet, as you may imagine, is scored for pairs of violins, violas and cellos. It is in four movements, as follows, and has a playing time of almost 40 minutes:

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Scherzo (allegro non troppo)
  3. Poco adagio
  4. Poco allegro

The opening of the first movement sounds as alien and weird as probably anything in 1866 could possibly have sounded. Wikipedia says that “The work is characterised by its exotic sounding opening of the first movement,” without giving any particular information about this interesting effect. What Palmer tells us is that this entire piece features the intervals of the fourth and fifth, and that this opening figure is marked by jumps of a fifth and then a half-step. That may be getting a bit technical, but the effect, I think, is pretty obvious: the music sounds slithery, unstable, shifty, in the most literal sense of the word.

I should mention that we are here again fortunate to have Kelly Dean Hansen’s writeup on the piece, which is, as always, exceptionally detailed. He says of the opening:

The first viola starts, very quietly, with a murmuring, almost buzzing oscillation on a half-step, the keynote and the “leading tone.”  This continues as a background through the entire first two large phrases of the first theme.  After two measures, the first violin begins its arching melody, mezza voce.  The second violin and second viola enter on long notes, and the second cello plucks a low G.

What’s magical is that after reading that, you hear it, even if you hadn’t before! Do give his article some attention if you have the time. It will help you appreciate the beauty of this piece even more.

As always, though, we’re doing well enough to be able to spot the landmarks along the way, if you will. At the end of this quieter first theme, the first cello steps out in its high register with a downward-moving line that transitions out of the first theme and eventually lands us into the second. You’ll know it when it hits. It’s clear and pristine, with nothing of the unsureness of the beginning. Enjoy these two themes again with the repeat of the exposition, and then we have a development that Hansen explains in great detail.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a cipher in this work. Schumann wasn’t the only one who encoded the name of a woman he loves into a piece of music. The climax of this work is on an “‘AGA(T)HE’ cipher,” as Hansen says (H being in German what we in English call B natural, in reference to one Agathe von Siebold, in whom he was interested at the time. They obviously never married, and Siebold apparently wrote a novel inspired by their breakup.

The second movement is a scherzo, and some of the strangeness you may have perceived from the first movement does persist here in a few different ways. For one, this scherzo, while clearly possessing a strong downbeat, is conspicuously not in three beats. It’s in 2/4 instead of 3/4. A bit of the same ‘exotic’ sound from the opening persists here, except we’re in a sort of melancholic minor key, wholly unlike being engulfed in the flames of the scherzo of the op. 34 piano quintet. Instead, we get some fire in the trio, but it’s jubilant and almost rustic, Hansen says “Slavonic.” It’s followed by a more subdued version of itself before finally reaching a climax and then getting back to the scherzo, another exultant, really brilliant movement.

The third movement is a set of five variations, but is not just musical wanderings. The first violin, without the lower half of the sextet, presents the main theme, which reminds us of the beginning of the first movement.

The first variation sees the entrance of the cellos, and the second becomes a bit more melancholy. You cannot miss the third, though. The cello begins it in kind of a heroic, forceful nature and sets in motion a contrapuntal installment that is repeated in its entirety before the fourth variation, equally dense, but a little lighter, appears. It’s dizzying to see how Brahms is juggling the material, with imitation, call-and-answer, and all the interaction that’s going on here. To try to listen to it and catch everything in real time is quite a feat. Things (thankfully) slow down for the lullaby-like fifth variation. By the time the coda comes around, after the final variation, we have made it to E major, from E minor, and are prepared for the finale, back in G, but not at first, seemingly.

The finale begins quietly but gets louder, like the ensemble is approaching us from a distance. When it arrives however, it actually quiets down, and it is this melody just after an initial shuffle of excitement, that Hansen says “is really the principal melody, and the tremolo motion could be seen as introductory except for its huge role in the development section.” The first theme is regal and even a bit reserved, the second is bouncier. The exposition is repeated, with a very short development section, and I guess I kind of expected this movement to go more down the melancholy route with the soured relationship and all the rest, but the movement overall is very much toward optimism, as we moved to the major mode in third movement, and the piece finishes brightly. Everyone needs a vacation here and there, I guess.

I really loved his first sextet, but Brahms shows really within a short period of time (five years between the two pieces) that he has developed a remarkable touch for chamber music, and we’ll only see more of that. Expect the string quartets, therefore, to be very mature pieces. We’ll be seeing them eventually, but stay tuned for a few Finns, and then more Mozart. Thanks so much for reading.

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