There are few things in my record collection as consistently rewarding as the ten or so albums I own of Johannes Brahms music. It seems every time I listen to his quartets and quintets I am moved by something I have never noticed – I have sat quietly in my living room for a half an hour and become lost in the 1968 Rubenstein/Guarneri Quartet recording of his Piano Quintet in F Minor (Op. 34) – this is when my kids aren’t home, of course - yet I still feel like I haven’t heard everything on the record. It is one of those records so achingly, heart-breakingly beautiful that you just want to turn it back over when you get to the end of the second side.
Brahms has been described as both a traditionalist and an innovator, and in that his work parallels that of many of my favorite musicians in other fields such as jazz (Roland Kirk) and traditional music (John Hartford). The Piano Quintet in F is distinctive in that he started work on it as a quartet, and it follows, in many ways, Beethoven’s late quartets (my favorite of which has already been featured in the Hymie’s blog here). This is especially true of the moody fourth movement, which until it’s robust conclusion demonstrates Brahms’ enormous debt to the great maestro.
One of my favorite pieces Brahms composed was completed only shortly after the more famous Piano Quintet in F Minor, but is not likewise considered one of his essential works. His second string sextet is not even as famous as the first, which is more often played and was even used in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. To my ear it is one of his most impassioned chamber pieces and the one which least suggests Beethoven’s influence (Beethoven’s seldom-heard sextet (Op. 81) was for a string quartet with two horns – he did not write a string sextet).
There are, in fact, very few string sextets from the 19th century, and none as memorable as Brahms’ second (except Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, which is undeniably influenced by Brahms). The earliest evidence of the second sextet in Brahms writing is in a letter to Clara Schumann, wife of the great composer Robert Schumann, written during the latter’s self-imposed institutionalization, while Brahms (then twenty-two) was caring for their children. He sent her four measures of a quartet which can be recognized today as the opening of the second quintet’s third movement. In a previous letter to Clara, he wrote: “How seldom I succeed in getting my thoughts out of my heart and onto paper. I think and I feel, without being able to hit the right note.”
It’s believed today that Brahms composed as many as twenty string quartets that ended up in wastebaskets. Some, like the four bars he sent to Clara Schumann, may have found new life in new works. What remains unheard inspires the imagination.
The String Sextet in G (Op. 36) may suggest a distant relationship to Beethoven regardless, in it’s expression of unrequited love – Brahms concealed the name of his secret crush, Agathe von Siebold, well into the first movement, with the notes A G A D H E in succession. Brahms and she were briefly, secretly, engaged in their youth.
I have always felt the evocative third movement was a portrait of a woman of grace and uncommon beauty (you know, like Laura). I think for the composer it was more about a first love and it’s enduring legacy (like John Hartford’s “First Girl I Loved” on Aeroplane perhaps). He once pointed to the passage with Agathe’s initials and told a friend, “With this I freed myself from my first love.”
Here – for you to enjoy and interpret in your own way – is my water-damaged, sorta-moldy copy of Brahms second sextet. It is performed by the Cleveland Quartet with Pihchas Zukerman (viola) and Bernard Greenhouse (cello).
(Allegro ma non troppo)
(Scherzo: allegro non troppo - Trio: presto giocoso)