Johannes Brahms — Sextet in B-flat Major for Strings, Opus 18



In 1857 Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97) moved to the small princely Court of Det­mold to assume his first offi­cial posi­tion in the world of music. His main duties were to give piano lessons to Princess Friederike, to per­form as pianist at court con­certs (of which there were many, since music was the prince’s over­rid­ing pas­sion), and to con­duct the choral soci­ety. The appoint­ment came at an aus­pi­cious time for Brahms. His good friend and cham­pion, the com­poser Robert Schu­mann, had died the year before, and Brahms found solace in his fre­quent long, soli­tary walks in the nearby Teu­to­burger Forest.

Though his duties lasted only from Sep­tem­ber through Decem­ber, he was able to live, albeit mod­estly, for an entire year on his court salary. He was also given a great deal of free­dom in the way he han­dled musi­cal affairs in Det­mold, though on occa­sion his some­what uncon­ven­tional behav­ior must have tried the patience of the more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the court. Brahms wrote to a friend in Ham­burg: “The other day I con­ducted my choral soci­ety, which is richly adorned with Serene High­nesses, with­out a neck­tie! Luck­ily I didn’t have to feel embar­rassed or vexed, as I only noticed it when I was going to bed!”

This period of tran­quil­ity and study of the clas­sic com­posers resulted in a rich out­pour­ing of com­po­si­tions from the young Brahms. In addi­tion to the First String Sex­tet, Opus 18, he took his first steps in orches­tral com­po­si­tion with the two Ser­e­nades (Opus 11 and Opus 16), con­tin­ued work on his First Piano Con­certo (Opus 15), and, of course, wrote numer­ous pieces for chorus.

The first of Brahms’s two sex­tets for strings was writ­ten dur­ing 1859 – 60 and was pre­miered on Octo­ber 20, 1860, with the composer’s good friend, the great vio­lin­ist Joseph Joachim, as part of the sex­tet. Brahms obvi­ously had a great deal of affec­tion for this music. He made a four-handed piano arrange­ment of it and tran­scribed the sec­ond move­ment for solo piano (which he pre­sented to Clara Schu­mann as a forty-first birth­day present and which Brahms him­self appar­ently played often). When a friend made a piano trio ver­sion of the sex­tet, Brahms was delighted.

The Sex­tet is in the clas­sic four-movement form, the sec­ond move­ment being a theme with six vari­a­tions. For years, com­men­ta­tors and crit­ics have delighted in try­ing to pin­point exactly which com­poser influ­enced which theme or move­ment of the sex­tet. (Does the last movement’s feel­ing of seren­ity owe more to Haydn or Schu­bert? Which theme in the first move­ment is most likely to have been inspired by Beethoven?) Such musi­cal games aside, the sex­tet offers an aston­ish­ing wealth of melody, cou­pled with a mas­ter­ful sense of pro­por­tion. The music’s light­ness of tex­ture (some­thing Brahms would later bring to his Hun­gar­ian Dances) allows the lis­tener to revel in the composer’s delight at the dif­fer­ences in tim­bre between the vio­lins, vio­las, and cel­los. One way Brahms empha­sizes the dif­fer­ences in tex­ture is by play­ing the dif­fer­ent pairs of instru­ments off against each other. His writ­ing is so clear and so vivid that lis­ten­ers can eas­ily fol­low the indi­vid­ual musi­cal lines as they are woven together.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.