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Rarely do classical albums look cool. Most feature some manic antique in the throes of conducting, or some pasty performer in a tuxedo — few make you want to bring the record home, let alone listen to it. Images of the composers themselves are no exception, as we most often find the frowniest, frumpiest image from his winter season. Consider the case of Johannes Brahms, most often represented as a pear-shaped father time, whose wild beard is topped with a dark mustache which curls upward, even if he’d been all but thirty when he composed the music on the album.
The elder Brahms is, of course, an amusing figure. He is said to have had a way of strolling with his hands clasped behind his back which accentuated his large beard and belly, and although by thirty he had become fairly wealthy, he never dressed well. He enjoyed the company of children, even carrying penny candy in his coat to share, but with adults often had little to say. He is remembered nonetheless as a loyal friend, and generous to a fault.
Brahms in his thirties
As a younger man he was a perfectionist and anxious as to the quality of his work, even if imbued with the potential to, as Robert Schumann said, “give ideal expression to the times.” He is believed to have destroyed as many as a dozen drafts for string quartets before completing his first chamber works. In early photographs, Brahms appears handsome and confident, although he was hardly a romantic outside of his music. Some scholars suggest his feelings about women were shaped at a young age, when he worked as a dance hall pianist to help support his family. He never married.
His music rarely reflected his personal life, let alone any narrative at all, leading critics since Karl Geiringer to call him “the enigmatic Brahms.” He never cared for programmatic music. One of his few contributions to the polemic discussions of the era was a letter co-written with his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, opposing the excesses of Wagner.
Brahms took his songs came from sources like scripture, and he never composed an opera. His two dramatic overtures imply the two sides of his personality — the first, his Academic Festival Overture, was written in gratitude to the University of Breslau in 1880, is an amalgam of familiar drinking songs. His second, the same year, he christened the Tragic Overture, but he never offered an explanation for its anguished character. He explained the two simply by saying, “one laughs while the other cries.”
Two unusual works which offer insight into Brahms’ feelings are also two of our favorites, his String Sextets composed in the early 1860s. The two loves of his life are reflected in the works, and they were by form unique simply for having been string sextets, a form which was hardly ever used, aside from the series of six written by Boccherini about a century earlier.
The first of Brahms’ loves was Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, who had welcomed Brahms into his home at twenty and made great efforts to advance the young musician’s career — although his effusive praise may have actually inadvertently added to Brahms’ anxieties. When Schumann leapt from a bridge into the Rhine not long after, he went voluntarily to a mental sanatorium in Bonn. Brahms remained at their home in Dusseldorf with Clara, who was pregnant with their eighth child at the time. He stayed with them, even delaying his career, for several years before finally departing, but kept up correspondence with Clara.
Clara was an accomplished concert pianist and most of their letters are about music. At one point Brahms urged her to destroy the letters he had sent, and returned many of hers. She only partly complied, leaving scholars to suspect those which remained to be eventually published were those she wished the world to see. Like Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” or the mysterious theme on which Elgar based his lovely Variations in 1898, we’re unlikely to ever know the whole story of Brahms’ relationship to Clara Schumann.
Brahms was briefly engaged to the other love of his life, Agathe von Siebold, a soprano often described in concert programs and album notes as “voluptuous.” Most of their letters to each other were burned, but when Michelmann Emil later wrote a novel about their relationship, von Siebold quoted the composer’s last letter to her: “I love you! I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters.* Please write me whether I may come again to clasp you in my arms, to kiss you, and tell you that I love you.” Her reply was to return his ring.
[* We had to look it up too. A fetter is “a chain or manacle used to restrain a prisoner, typically placed around the ankles.”]
This is the context of his String Sextets, written for two violins, two violas and two cellos shortly after these tumultuous years. The first was filled with magnificent melodic ideas but missing the confidence of Brahms’ orchestral and choral works — it’s believed he chose the form to avoid comparisons to Beethoven’s quartets. With the second, his G Major Sextet, he displays mastery of what would quickly become a more common form (Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg all composed their own string sextets in the coming years). Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Robert Schumann’s string quartets, it is one of the most intimate works in Brahms’ oeuvre.
Since producing the first Sextet, he labored passionately on his First Piano Concerto only to have its performances received poorly — at its second performance, with Brahms himself accompanied by the prestigious Lepzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the audience actually hissed at him. He wrote to his friend Joseph, “I am only experimenting and feeling my way. All the same, the hissing was rather too much.”
The allegro non troppo first movement of Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major contains two of the only personal references to appear in his music. At the climax of its first movement, Brahms emplys an anagram of Agathe’s name, A-G-A-B-E (in German musical notation B is written H). Writing about it later, he said, “here is where I tore myself free from my last love.” The movement is impassioned and fluid throughout, with the leads less dominant than in his first Sextet. The rising motif at the beginning is believed to present a sort of opposite portrayal of Clara Schumann as is heard in her husband’s String Quartet no. 3, from twenty years earlier. Again, an anagram is used. We’re not sure how you’d do this for someone whose name doesn’t include any letters from A through G. Scholars found early drafts of this motif his notes from a decade earlier, around the time of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide.
The balance of the String Quartet in G Major is less intimate, but strikingly beautiful. Its scherzo is one of his first, lumbering too slowly for a dance until a trio passage, presto giocosso, lightens the mood. The third movement is a very slow adagio, and its opening melody first appeared in a draft for a discarded quartet which Brahms had sent to Clara Schumann in 1855. “How seldom I succeed in getting my thoughts out of my heart and onto paper,” he wrote. “I think and I feel without being able to hit the right notes.”
Brahms overcame his fear of being compared to Beethoven and composed three quartets in the 1870s, and also continued to re-work his Sextets for years. He made little reference to his romances in letters to friends after this time. He and Clara continued to burn their correspondences until her eldest daughter, Marie, convinced her otherwise.
Here in two parts is the allegro non troppo from Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major.
On this early 1980s recording, the Cleveland Quartet is joined by Pinchas Zukerman and Bernard Greenhouse. As you can see from the picture of the jacket, our copy has seen better days. Fortunately the records within are in good shape. The Cleveland Quartet had previously recorded Brahms’ three string quartets.