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Name of Work

Brahms, Johannes (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (2008)

Movements:
Allegro non troppo
Scherzo: Allegro non troppo -- Trio: Presto giocoso
Adagio
Poco allegro

Performances:


May 11, 2008



Jasmine Lin, Violin
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Katinka Kleijn, Cello
Clancy Newman, Cello


May 12, 2008



Jasmine Lin, Violin
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Rami Solomonow, Viola
Yukiko Ogura, Viola
Katinka Kleijn, Cello
Clancy Newman, Cello

BRAHMS-String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (Agathe)

Composed in 1864

BACKGROUND
Brahms shared Beethoven's hesitation in tackling the genres of symphony and string quartet. But rather than Mozart and Haydn, Brahms was haunted particularly by the ghost of the accomplishments of Beethoven himself. Brahms never published any of his early string quartets and came to the symphony rather late in his creative life (his Symphony No. 1 is his Op. 68). Both geniuses turned first to other genres, and in Brahms' case this meant that two early chamber pieces took the form of string sextets, emphasizing and capitalizing upon his lifelong fondness for mellow, lower- and mid-range sonorities.

Even while he was postponing symphonies and tearing up string quartets -- perhaps 20 or more failed attempts -- the young Brahms of the 1850s and 1860s was neither idle nor compositionally frustrated. His job during three seasons, 1857-59, at the court of the principality of Detmold found him serving as chief piano soloist, with and without orchestra, plus choral conductor, chamber musician, and teacher. He had plenty of time to work on such early masterworks as the D Minor Piano Concerto, the two orchestral serenades, his first piano quartets, and the two string sextets that emerged between 1860 and 1865. The 1850s were also a period of intensive study for Brahms, who imposed on himself a rigorous exercise program to master contrapuntal writing: canons and fugues.

He immersed himself in studying the works of Bach and of Bach's predecessors all the way back into the Renaissance era, in the process developing a lifelong interest in earlier styles and becoming perhaps the first Western composer to gain a thorough knowledge of the music of the past. (Nowadays we'd call him a part-time musicologist.) He also put in time studying the scores of more recent predecessors like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. From these disciplines, and from the varied performing experiences at Detmold, he emerged with a thorough understanding of musical form and an enthusiasm for the richness and complexity that thematic expansion and development gain from the use of contrapuntal writing.

Themes from the G Major sextet's Scherzo and Adagio have been linked to earlier, lost compositions of the mid-1850s, to which Brahms made references in letters to his longtime friend and mentor, Clara Schumann, occasionally including some short musical quotes. In the first movement, a motive emerges with notes A-G-A-D-B (H in German notation)-E, almost spelling the first name of Agathe von Siebold, a singer to whom Brahms became quite engaged in the summer of 1858. Their eventual breakup was painful for both of them.

The motive both immortalizes Agathe and forms a kind of declaration of independence for Brahms: in a letter to a friend, he said, "In this work I have freed myself from my last love." He would never marry, apparently viewing the institution and the commitment as too confining, and perhaps incapable of feeling love except in the form of his close friendships, with the violinist Joseph Joachim and with Clara Schumann.

MUSIC
The Sextet's first movement opens with a murmuring pattern played by the first viola, over which the first violin states an expansive, flowing theme that's immediately repeated by the first cello. During this opening statement we briefly move from G into E-Flat Major, a characteristic proceeding of Brahms and other Romantic harmonists. Theory professors call it "the relationship of the third." It's a way of enriching the harmonic progressions by introducing, however briefly, a key that's separated from the tonic by the interval of a major or minor third.

However, the movement proceeds to modulate in traditional fashion to the key of D (dominant of G) for the second theme, yearningly lyrical, this time announced by the cello and taken up secondly by the violin. The exposition ends with a new motive, (the A-G-A-D-B-E referenced above), introduced with dramatic abruptness.

The first movement's development section brings back the opening theme, fragments it, and offers re-combinations based on canonic and fugal imitations. Tremolos and chromatic harmonies signal the approach of the recapitulation. The second movement, a Scherzo in G Minor, begins with themes of gentle melancholy that are intertwined contrapuntally. This is a slower-than-usual Scherzo until we get to the Trio section, which reverts to G Major and picks up the pace to Presto. The violins and first viola carry the galloping theme, supported by waltz patterns for the cellos and second viola.

For the Adagio, Brahms chose to highlight the relationship of the third again, casting the movement in E Minor. He also chose one of his favorite structures, that of theme-and-variations. The first violin introduces the 12-measure theme accompanied by commentary from the second violin and, eventually, both violas. The first two variations maintain the mournful mood of the opening, the third is more upbeat, the fourth downright agitated. For the fifth and final variation, the music modulates to a radiant E Major. All the variations comment upon the theme and its constituent parts by re-combining it contrapuntally, each instrument's lines imitating the others in succession.

The finale of a G Major piece is supposed to start in that key, but surprises are both fun and time-honored. Brahms begins with an attention-getting A Minor chord before launching the main G Major theme. The first cello and then the second violin introduce Theme II almost immediately. The development section begins with a six-voiced fugue, and after recapping the main themes, the instruments play another fugue, related to the first, as a rousing coda.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performed May 11 & 12, 2008



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