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Strange as it may seem, Johannes Brahms clearly had a hang up when it came to writing for strings. He certainly did very well by the violin and cello in the B-major Piano Trio when he was barely 20, in 1853, but he found it easier to combine six strings, which he did in two sextets just a few years later, than he did in the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-proven string quartet, which he didn’t venture until about 1865, well after the sextets. And he composed his only violin concerto a year before turning out a sonata for violin and piano. Don’t look for a logical explanation; the ways of this ever-cautious creative genius are wonderfully mysterious.
The most accessible of the strings, the violin, was not Brahms’ personal instrument, but he came to understand it in a very personal way, in an almost hands-on way. When he was only 17 he went on the road as accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. At the elbow of this brilliant player, young Johannes learned much about the instrument’s technique and capabilities and, as a bonus, came to know and love the Hungarian music Reményi always included on his programs. But his debt to Reményi didn’t stop there, for it was he who introduced the young composer to Joseph Joachim who, although only two years older than Brahms, was at age 21 already a famous artist, known from the time he was 13 when he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto under Mendelssohn’s baton. It was Joachim who made possible Brahms’ introduction to the Schumanns – Robert and his pianist wife Clara – a relationship that was crucial to his career and his life. As was his life-long friendship with Joachim
The appeal to Brahms of a string sextet was based, one supposes, on the possibilities presented by the deep sonority of its two cellos and two violas playing off the soprano brilliance of two violins. As we know from his orchestral music, Brahms reveled in the gutsy strength and soulful expressiveness of the lower instruments. So it’s no surprise that his first sextet begins with a cello singing tenderly the main theme. (A quick word about the rhythm here: the time signature says three beats to a measure, but this main theme falls precisely in four beats. In the 19th century, composers rarely if ever used different time signatures in the same piece, but Brahms was a rhythmic rascal and his cross rhythms are legion, which is one reason Schoenberg admired him so much.)
The movement is rich in themes, one of the most memorable being the extension to the main theme, in triplets, a rhythmic unit to which Brahms was especially partial. Everywhere in this movement, and indeed in the entire sextet, Brahms’ exceptional ability to unify his material through thematic transformation, and by using melodic kernels as comfortingly recognizable signposts along the way, brings wonderful cohesion to the music. It’s easy to point out many distinctive passages, but to mention just one: where an extension of the triplet theme is in the violins, with violas and cellos playing opposing-valued notes, creating extreme agitation as a prelude to the simple, lyrical subordinate theme in the violins, now in minor.
Recounting the splendors of the first movement could go on and on and would include the masterful unfolding of the development section, but the remainder of the sextet has it own distinctions. The second movement is a theme and six variations – a minor-key theme presented by a viola – and in the classical variation form Brahms is second to none, before or after him. The third movement is a scherzo with more than a little rustic flavor, and the concluding rondo has more than a little Schubert in it, particularly in the spring-like main theme sung gracefully by a cello. Notwithstanding the Schubert resemblance, the remainder of the movement is pure Brahms, with all the compositional invention and sonorous splendors that bespeaks.
Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic’s program book.