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.