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String Sextet No.1 in B flat Op.18

Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)

Natalie Clein

Natalie Clein

Composer
Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Composition Year
1860
Work Movements
1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante ma moderato
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto - Trio: Animato
4. Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso
Artists
Natalie Clein [cello], Marc Coppey [Cello], Lilli Maijala [viola], Brett Dean [viola], Chloë Hanslip [violin], Dmitri Sitovetsky [violin]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

We do well to honour such music, and to love the genius and nobility of heart that went into its making.

This magnificently lyrical work is one of Brahms’ best-loved chamber works, one where he can luxuriate in the richly romantic textures made possible by the two extra lower strings. String sextet was a choice of medium that side-stepped his apprehensions about composing symphonies, because of what he famously called the tramp of giants behind him; it also evaded facing up to the most essential chamber music medium of all, the string quartet. In fact he had been writing string quartets all along, but he did not let one out until some twenty attempts had been confined to oblivion. He claimed to have papered the walls and ceiling of his room in Hamburg with his discarded scores. So in the 1860s he concentrated on acoustically richer chamber mediums that happened to be less thunderous with the tramp of giants – string sextets, strings with piano and a horn trio.

Brahms often consulted his good friend the star violinist and composer, Joseph Joachim, when writing for strings. He sent Joachim the first draft of his score with a typically downbeat note: I’m afraid that as I’ve tarried so long over the piece, your expectations will not have been raised! But since God makes all things possible, I am sending you the parts, in case the Rondo should strike your fancy…I look forward to being invited soon to a rehearsal. However, if you don’t like the piece, then by all means send it back to me. Joachim made some suggestions that Brahms accepted, including assigning the opening statement of the first movement’s theme to the first cello rather than to the first violin and, indeed, at times it seems that it is the cello rather than the violin leads the ensemble.

The extra cello makes a huge difference as the second cello can be entrusted with the bass line while the first cello can take wing with one soaring melody after another. From the first bar we know we are in one version of lyrical heaven. Out of the cadence of this deliciously mellow theme grows a second idea accompanied by pizzicato responses from viola and cello leading in turn to another gorgeous melody with an undulating accompaniment. As Brahms grew older he tended to rein in his melodic genius, but here he is still in his twenties, hotly pursued by the beauties of his Hamburg Frauenchor, and he allows his romantic spirit to flow unchecked. It is also the spirit of the Ländler, the slow waltz of the Austrian countryside that inevitably recalls Schubert’s bitter-sweet music.

The slow movement was the result of Brahms’ intense study of classical and baroque forms, and is an early example of his brilliant use of variation form. But despite his rigid adherence to the theme’s proportions, his variations so transform the theme and are so rich in their contrasted sonorities, that they completely overwhelm the strictness of the form. The theme itself is in D minor, giving it an air of stern nobility, which is not entirely dispelled until the wonderful fourth variation.

The Scherzo is a brief and high-spirited country dance with an irresistible rhythm; the trio is even briefer and fierier and returns in the coda to bring the dance to an end. It takes genius to come up with a Finale that crowns a work like this and Brahms, like the other great masters, is able for this. He gives us an unhurried, melodically generous Rondo that cleverly brings back the mood of the first movement, reminding us again of Schubert, his love of the countryside and his edge of sadness, and that feeling that if only the music could keep playing maybe the sadness could be overcome. Brahms shows us his command of every mood, lyrical, rustic, graceful, sad, dramatic, clever, witty, romantic and leaving us breathless at the end. 

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String Sextet No.1 in B flat Op.18

Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Performance date: Saturday 4th July 2015
Venue: Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,

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Composer Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
Work Title String Sextet No.1 in B flat Op.18
Composition Year 1860
Work Movements 1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante ma moderato
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto - Trio: Animato
4. Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso
Artist(s) Natalie Clein [cello], Marc Coppey [Cello], Lilli Maijala [viola], Brett Dean [viola], Chloë Hanslip [violin], Dmitri Sitovetsky [violin]
Performance Date Saturday 4th July 2015
Performance Venue Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,
Event Finale
Duration 00:37:41
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category Sextet
Instrumentation 2vn, 2va, 2vc
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

We do well to honour such music, and to love the genius and nobility of heart that went into its making.

This magnificently lyrical work is one of Brahms’ best-loved chamber works, one where he can luxuriate in the richly romantic textures made possible by the two extra lower strings. String sextet was a choice of medium that side-stepped his apprehensions about composing symphonies, because of what he famously called the tramp of giants behind him; it also evaded facing up to the most essential chamber music medium of all, the string quartet. In fact he had been writing string quartets all along, but he did not let one out until some twenty attempts had been confined to oblivion. He claimed to have papered the walls and ceiling of his room in Hamburg with his discarded scores. So in the 1860s he concentrated on acoustically richer chamber mediums that happened to be less thunderous with the tramp of giants – string sextets, strings with piano and a horn trio.

Brahms often consulted his good friend the star violinist and composer, Joseph Joachim, when writing for strings. He sent Joachim the first draft of his score with a typically downbeat note: I’m afraid that as I’ve tarried so long over the piece, your expectations will not have been raised! But since God makes all things possible, I am sending you the parts, in case the Rondo should strike your fancy…I look forward to being invited soon to a rehearsal. However, if you don’t like the piece, then by all means send it back to me. Joachim made some suggestions that Brahms accepted, including assigning the opening statement of the first movement’s theme to the first cello rather than to the first violin and, indeed, at times it seems that it is the cello rather than the violin leads the ensemble.

The extra cello makes a huge difference as the second cello can be entrusted with the bass line while the first cello can take wing with one soaring melody after another. From the first bar we know we are in one version of lyrical heaven. Out of the cadence of this deliciously mellow theme grows a second idea accompanied by pizzicato responses from viola and cello leading in turn to another gorgeous melody with an undulating accompaniment. As Brahms grew older he tended to rein in his melodic genius, but here he is still in his twenties, hotly pursued by the beauties of his Hamburg Frauenchor, and he allows his romantic spirit to flow unchecked. It is also the spirit of the Ländler, the slow waltz of the Austrian countryside that inevitably recalls Schubert’s bitter-sweet music.

The slow movement was the result of Brahms’ intense study of classical and baroque forms, and is an early example of his brilliant use of variation form. But despite his rigid adherence to the theme’s proportions, his variations so transform the theme and are so rich in their contrasted sonorities, that they completely overwhelm the strictness of the form. The theme itself is in D minor, giving it an air of stern nobility, which is not entirely dispelled until the wonderful fourth variation.

The Scherzo is a brief and high-spirited country dance with an irresistible rhythm; the trio is even briefer and fierier and returns in the coda to bring the dance to an end. It takes genius to come up with a Finale that crowns a work like this and Brahms, like the other great masters, is able for this. He gives us an unhurried, melodically generous Rondo that cleverly brings back the mood of the first movement, reminding us again of Schubert, his love of the countryside and his edge of sadness, and that feeling that if only the music could keep playing maybe the sadness could be overcome. Brahms shows us his command of every mood, lyrical, rustic, graceful, sad, dramatic, clever, witty, romantic and leaving us breathless at the end.