Our Sanders Theatre Series ends this spring featuring the collaboration of two fine cellists who have each founded and formed superb chamber music series in two of the most cosmopolitan and international cities in the northeast of our continent. On Thursday, May 9, Boston Chamber Music Society will open the eighteenth edition of the Festival de Musique de Chambre de Montreal and on Sunday, May 12, bring to a close our 30th Anniversary Season in Cambridge.
I first met cellist Denis Brott, artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, when we were students at the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School in 1964. Since then our paths have diverged and intersected in many ways, most notably for me, as a guest in his festival for well over a decade.
I first met cellist Ronald Thomas, founding artistic director of BCMS as a member of a string trio formed by Young Concert Artists, Inc., of three recent winners of its annual International auditions. The violinist of that trio was Hiroko Yajima (Rhodes), mother-to-be of Harumi Rhodes, who is currently a BCMS member musician.
Each cellist, coincidentally, and perhaps unknown to them, shares in common a love of the mastery and artistry of the famed cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Together, for the first time, they will open our concert with Suite for Two Cellos and Piano written by Gian Carlo Menotti (founder of the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto Italy) for cellists Piatigorsky and Brott. It was premiered forty years ago this month, in May, 1973 at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center by cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Leslie Parnas with Charles Wadsworth, founding artistic director of CMSLC, at the piano.
To my ear Suite for Two Cellos and Piano shows influences of Baroque imitation between the two principals with a neo-Baroque, Stravinsky-like accompaniment. However, at its heart, in third movement, we hear the kind of singing lines above luscious harmonic writing that prompted Francis Poulenc to say left listeners with ‘red eyes and beating hearts’ (when writing about Menotti’s opera The Consul).
Thereafter, our program takes us into a world of tragedy and deliverance that is Dimitri Shostakovitch’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. It, too, speaks first in the ancient language and stately character of the Baroque, opening with a resounding G minor chord that could easily be the same chord that opens Bach’s great organ Prelude and Fugue in the same key. Unlike the Bach, the fugue that follows is muted and solemn—not fleet and playful—like a procession to the inevitable. A searing Scherzo follows. But next, the solemn procession continues with solo violin above a walking jazz-like bass pizzicato. The last movement, opening and concluding in G major, offers little more than a ray of hope.
Our program concludes with Schubert’s great String Quintet in C major with two cellos. There is a reason this work is requested to provide communal solace at the most difficult times. In the twisting qualities of its opening chords we hear at once that bitter and sweet are two sides of the same experience; that as melodies soar above palpitating rhythms, so, too, can the spirit above the troubled and restless heart. The slow movement takes us into ‘the dark night of the soul,’ but follows that with the sublime deliverance only Schubert can imagine. The exuberance of the Scherzo is interrupted by a plunge into the depths of mourning in the Trio. The Finale, if about nothing else, is for me the embodiment of restoration and acceptance. More than any other work in our repertoire, the Quintet truly provides a transformative experience.
When we return to Sanders next fall, Schubert will again be our guide with his Fantasie in F minor for piano four hands, played by our superb pianists. Until then, be well, stay strong.
Our April Sanders concert promises thrills and chills unlike any heard recently at BCMS.
We open with the kind of music that might have greeted us at the opening of a great outdoor Renaissance Festival, not unlike our own Boston Marathon. Charles Wuorinen’s fun-filled jaunty variations on Renaissance dances are re-composed here for four modern instruments (flute, clarinet, violin and cello) and disguised under a formidable German title as Bearbeitung über das Glogauer Liederbuch. (Don’t be fooled!)
Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, or Songs of Madagascar, are three he wrote for Baritone, flute, cello and piano, in response to a commission late in his career (1925) from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. They are set to poetry translated (or written) by Évariste de Parny (1753-1814). The scenes they paint and situations describe might require each of us to secure parental permission to attend this performance.
In the first song a man anticipates the arrival of his lover, sensuously repeating her name, Nahandove. She arrives…The second song is written from the point of view of African natives who might have read, if not experienced, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). It opens with a native cry “Aoua!” “Menez-vous des blancs” i.e., ‘beware the white men’ (despoiling colonialists). In the third song, we are shown a scene of erotic leisure in the moonlight, one man served by many women.
In this, the fiftieth year since his death, we present two works to honor the memory and spirit of the youngest member of Les Six, Francis Poulenc. His Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano and Le Bal masque, a ‘profane cantata’ for Baritone, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Cornet, Violin, Cello, Piano and Percussion will each be performed for the first time on our BCMS series. (His song cycle Le Bestaire, ou Le cortège de Orphée was performed two seasons ago as part of our Winter Festival season.)
The Trio, in three movements, follows the familiar chamber format but with the notable exception of the harmonic and motivic language translated from Germanic gravitas into French dry wit, charm and love of life. The cantata, commissioned in 1932 for a ‘spectacle concert’ or soiree, is set to surrealist poetry of Max Jacob. Apparently, there exists a photo of some of those who attended the party. Among them are noted surrealist artists, Alberto Giacometti and Luis Buñuel. (One should not expect to make immediate sense of the text.)
Between the two Poulenc’s will be a performance of the Suite from Dancing with the Shadow for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Piano and Percussion by Jamaican composer, Eleanor Alberga. I think of it as her more recent answer to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (whose Suite we heard on our last concert),a work that also deals with courting and coming to terms with our darker forces.
Taken together, these should all be quite a show of darkness and light!
[Sir Thomas] More is a man of angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad a gravity; a man for all seasons.
Robert Whittinton c. 1480-1530
To conclude our three-concert series at MIT we turn our attention to music for diversion, delight, or just plain fun. Beethoven’s Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 29, is one of his lightest, most virtuosic, and outgoing compositions. Designed on a six-movement scheme more common to the Divertimento than to the four-movement string quartet or piano trio, it contains a minuet with two trios and a scherzo with one. It opens with a short Entrata, announcing the arrival of the musicians, that I can imagine being played by a strolling group of players (since, without cello, no player is anchored in place) following close behind the waiters at a jovial gathering. The Menuetto with two trios follows, and then a restless Allegro molto. At the heart of the piece lies a theme and variations movement with solos lead by each player in turn. It is followed by a sprightly Scherzo and Trio, and an Adagio and Rondo Finale. The faster movements are filled with marvelous games of tag and chase that take the listener’s gaze back and forth across the ensemble, and from the individual to the whole.
Charles Ives’ Piano Trio (written between 1896 and 1907 and premiered in 1948) is widely appreciated for its breach of concert etiquette and decorum by including programmatic elements, raucous intrusions of school and folk songs and quotes of Protestant hymns that in their own way turn the ear away from the usually sacred abstraction of traditional chamber music. The effect can be deeply moving or hilarious depending upon the context. Ives writes:
The Trio was, in a general way…a reflection or impression of…college days on the Campus, now 50 years ago. The first movement recalled a rather short but serious talk, to those on the Yale fence, by an old professor of Philosophy; the second, the games and antics by students…on a Holiday afternoon; and some of the tunes and songs of those days were…suggested in this movement, sometimes in a rough way. The last movement was partly a remembrance of a Sunday Service on the Campus…which ended near the “Rock of Ages.”
Ingolf Dahl’s Divertimento for Viola and Piano (1948) is a four-movement work written for a series of private home concerts given by serious musicians whose primary employment was within the Hollywood movie industry. It was dedicated to and premiered by violist Milton Thomas, with whom I have had the privilege to play over many years in the Sitka Alaska Festival. Igor Stravinsky was present at the premiere and remarked that this was the greatest viola piece he had ever heard. Small wonder. The first movement is chock full of his way of writing rhythmic texture for ensembles of strings or winds. The second movement is a Barcarolle (note the reference to a rocking boat), the third, a set of variations on Scottish American folk song called “The Mermaid” whose words disclose the certainty of dying that comes with seeing a mermaid and having your ship dragged “down below.” Dahl tunes down the viola ‘C’ string to great effect. The final movement is more like Copland than Stravinsky in its jaunty rhythm and is unmistakably American-made by this Swiss-born Hollywood Exile.
Our program closes by combining all the evening’s players in that wonderful romp that is David Diamond’s Quintet for Flute, String Trio, and Piano (1937). It is an energetic work in three contrasting movements tonally centered in B minor. The first movement is rhythmically decisive and sounds in modal tonality one might associate with Medieval practices. The slow movement is lyrical and harmonically rich. The last movement is driven by a compound dance rhythm commonly associated with the Baroque Gigue. Taken together they crystallize our evening’s theme of Marvelous Mirth and Pastimes.
Our March program opens in C minor with the great Beethoven String Trio and ends in the triumphant E-flat major of Robert Schumann’s noble Piano Quartet. Along the way we meet three of the Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano by Max Bruch—which place the two lyrical middle voices of their respective wind and string families in direct contact. Also on the program is the sprightly collection of dances distilled and arranged by Stravinsky from his larger L’Histoire du soldat, that cautionary tale about bargaining with the Devil and getting in the end more than you bargained for.
The String Trio in C minor, Op. 9 No. 3 is Beethoven’s last work for this medium and predates his writing for string quartet (the six of Opus 18 being the earliest). It is comprised of the four movements found typically in a Classical quartet—Fast, Slow, Scherzo and Trio, Faster. Without the extra violin each player is busier trying to fill out the middle texture, the alto and tenor voices, that achieve the balanced sound and allow any single instrument at times to soar above a solid triadic foundation in a quartet. All parts end up playing more notes—as double stop—to make up for the missing middle.
In addition to writing Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Max Bruch also wrote a major work for the two “solo” instruments with orchestra. Placing the two middle voices in direct contact was Mozart’s idea in his beautiful Kegelstadt Trio. Mozart was able to exploit more differences between the two than Bruch, who treats them as affectionate friends rather than rivals. (The rivalry, over which might best play the two exquisite Brahms Sonatas, the Clarinet Trio and Quintet, comes later.)
The Suite from L’Histoire du soldat was arranged by Stravinsky himself for violin, clarinet and piano probably to gain more exposure for some of his most popular music. In its original form it requires nine players and three actors including a percussion batterie. Rather than converging mostly around a common middle range, the instruments move freely throughout every register and emotion, from solemn to sassy, making up for all the other “missing” parts with virtuosity.
After intermission the Schumann Piano Quartet brings together the three strings with piano. Considered one of the greatest and most tuneful masterpieces of the medium, the quartet shares with the rest of his chamber music for strings and piano a characteristic scoring of many of his string parts within the same register as the piano part often doubling many of the inner parts in the keyboard writing. For any chamber player used to being the sole owner of a particular line, hearing it played simultaneously by another player or within the piano part imposes limits to be negotiated. In Schumann’s scoring, the doubling provides a unique and special color that suggests how closely he viewed the sound of the strings as emanating from and extending the range of his piano.
One might easily wonder what could possibly bring together in one program works from composers as different as those by Mendelssohn, Kodály and Fauré in our February concert? Each piece appeared among its composer’s earliest published works, rich in youthful vigor and promise, has withstood the tests of time within its respective canon and among works written for the same combinations of instruments ever since.
In his Sonata in C minor for Viola and Piano, written at age 15—one year before his greatest youthful triumph, the Octet for Strings—Felix Mendelssohn rushes in and succeed in writing for viola where Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—violists all—feared to tread. In its choice of key, energy, and design it shows a keen awareness of Beethovenian melodic drama, playfulness, and the use of variation movement like those common in the fifteen sonatas for violin and piano, and cello and piano.
Zoltan Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, takes us deep into the land of Hungarian folklore, image, and song. The melodic story and closely imitative texture are compelling enough to distract the listener from the difficulties the two players must surmount darting seamlessly between background and foreground to support each other’s solo turns.
Piano Quartet no. 1 Op. 15 by Gabriel Fauré brings together both duos to conclude our program in a return to C minor in one of his most popular works. It is the first of two pieces for this combination, both in minor key, that bring nobility and spaciousness rather than darkness to the use of minor mode. Along with those by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, it is one of the most popular works in the piano quartet literature.
Our Sun in the Music of Haydn, Debussy, Hartke and Respighi
Our Sun’s power—over our very being and in our imaginations—has historically come more from what we didn’t know and were willing to speculate. At a distance of ninety-three million miles from Earth it gives us life, warming us in its light and charring us in its heat. If knowledge is really power, why has increasing knowledge about the Sun left us feeling less powerful? The closer we get—in optics or in flight—the more we wonder, worship, and sigh.
In choosing to contemplate the Sun in our Winter Festival Forum and Concert, whether in music, poetry, or nature, we increasingly come full circle—not just in a single day, or throughout the life cycle—but in making us one with the rest of humanity, who in various centuries wondered, worshiped, and sighed even as we do today.
Haydn String Quartet in B–flat major, Hob. III:78, “Sunrise”
Debussy La Mer (arr. for Piano Four Hands)
Hartke The King of the Sun: Tableaux for Piano Quartet
Respighi Il Tramonto (The Sunset), for Voice and String Quartet
The best introduction to our Musical Helios concert will be in the free forum at 1:30 pm in Kresge Auditorium. Leon Golub, a senior astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, will be joined by MIT’s climate scientist Kerry Emanuel to speak about the Sun as we now know it, and its effect on the Earth and storms like those depicted in Debussy’s La Mer. Michael Scott Cuthbert, MIT’s medievalist and musicologist, will speak about Stephen Hartke’s The King of the Sun (1988) and how it is based on a poem and music mis-attributed to Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370–1412) and related to paintings by 17th-century Dutchman Jan Steen as well as 20th-century Catalan Joan Miró.
Le Ray au Soleyl
Le ray au soleyl qui dret som karmeyne En soy bracant la douce tortorelle Laquel compagnon onques renovelle A bon droyt sembla que en toy perfect reyne
The ray of sunlight, in whose true enchantment
sleeps the sweet turtledove–in his embrace–
ever rejuvenating that beloved one;
faithfully makes his appearance in your kingdom
After the sun has risen and played on the waves in Debussy, and Hartke has whimsically played on the meaning of ‘Ray’ of sunlight to ‘Rey’, or King, our program concludes with the sigh of grief at the loss of love and life captured so vividly in the 1816 poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley and set in translation for voice and string quartet by Respighi one hundred years later.
Observing Beethoven’s birthday at the end of an era
Each year about this time BCMS has the privilege of playing on or about the actual date of Beethoven’s birth. It always falls near the end of the year among the great religious observances of the loss of light and life that have sustained us thus far. It is also a time of year that we anticipate and celebrate the great rebirth of the light that heralds the coming of spring and the return of the world to life.
This time is different. We have already faced the Millennium. This year we’ve had the winds, the floods, the blackout, and this fall, even an earthquake in Cambridge. However, before the week is out, this time we may well wonder both about the projected Mayan Apocalypse on December 21st, and the projected fiscal cliff to follow.
Somehow this program helps me put it all into a musical perspective with two early works of Beethoven (the Clarinet Trio and the “Spring” Sonata) heralding better things to come, followed by the transcendent mystical vision of Messiaen of what to look forward to should it all end next week!
BCMS Founding Artistic Director and cellist, Ronald Thomas, will share his amazing insight and love for the Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a free pre-concert talk in the Kresge Little Theater at 3pm. This semester we were privileged and grateful to have him spend a Saturday afternoon coaching an MIT Chamber Music Society ensemble on the work.
We hope these performances will inspire your best thoughts and feelings for this season, and that you will be back to celebrate the re-birth of the sun in our Musical Helios concert, also at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, on Saturday, January 19th at 4pm. That performance will be preceded by an exciting discussion of the most recent work on the program, Stephen Hartke’s The King of the Sun.
Our November concert offers important works by each of the pillars of Viennese Classical Style, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As we know, they actually knew one another and gained both instruction and inspiration from each other’s work; less, perhaps, Mozart learning from Beethoven. This program presents all three composers at about the same time their lives and works would be discussed in Music Appreciation classes throughout our town. (You may see in this an undisguised appeal to the young!)
There are more than a few chronological anomalies that enter this remarkable three-way relationship and their music. It would be simple enough to claim successive influence if all we knew were their respective dates of birth: 1732, 1756, 1770. But we also know that Haydn, although born twenty-four years before Mozart, knew him first as a child, outlived him as a celebrated adult, and continued to compose to great acclaim for another eighteen years. Beethoven, who came of age at the height of Mozart’s powers, lived to witness his death and the changes in Haydn’s music after the loss.
The three works on our concert first appeared over a twenty-year period: Haydn’s Piano Trio in E major in 1797, six years after Mozart’s death; Mozart’s String Quintet in C major in 1787, ten years before Haydn’s Trio was composed; and the original version of Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto in 1807, two years before Haydn’s death. And yet, hearing all these pieces in concert order in the same sitting leaves this listener with the impression of an eternal dialogue between and among them over how best to employ the harmonic, melodic, and formal fashion of their time and of times before.
In more than a few places it is easy to wonder if one is hearing a gesture, motif, phrase, or character employed in exactly the same way in a work heard earlier in the evening. Let alone the fact that these pieces often refer back to earlier works by each of these composers and others. In this way these pieces not only speak to each other, they both echo and answer each other in interesting ways.
There are far too many examples to choose from, so I will try to present the ones I found most striking.
The Haydn trio opens with one of the oddest effects one is likely to hear on modern instruments: pizzicato strings accompaniment to a sustained melody in the keyboard which, in this context, is a better conveyor of melody than plucked strings. If the keyboard part were played on harpsichord or cembalo there is even greater sense of the overall shared ‘lute-stop’ plucked texture.
Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, opening to Measure 6
Please remember this texture! Why? Because we might be reminded of it at the close of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto! much later in the evening.
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, Movement 3, Measures 418 to 426
In the Haydn again, once the strings take up the bow, the first thing we hear is an emphatic declamatory ascending arpeggio played by the violin.
Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, opening to Measure 11
Perhaps this listener could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu on hearing the opening of the Mozart quintet (1789)
Mozart String Quintet in C major, K. 515, Movement 1, opening
The opening of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33, No. 3 in C major (“The Bird”) published c.1782 is said to be the inspiration for the opening of the Mozart quintet.
Haydn String Quartet in C major, Op. 33, No. 3, Movement 1, opening
Both works have melodic turns in the violin parts and prominent ascending C major cello arpeggios in a dialogue of the outer parts over an eighth accompaniment. Within the Mozart quintet the dialogue starts in the cello and is answered in the first violin, the opposite of Haydn’s quartet. Between the two composers there is clearly an affectionate exchange.
The slow movement of the Haydn is in E minor and explores a most unusual unison string texture. While it may be unusual in terms of Classical style, it is not uncommon in Baroque music ground bass writing. The chromatic twists and turns of the unison are reminiscent of the famous bass solo in Handel’s Messiah: “The People That Walked in Darkness”.
Although the character of the E minor Andante con moto movement of the Beethoven concerto is louder and bolder, the use of the unison string texture, and the inclusion of dotted rhythms suggest that this movement is derived from the same Baroque source, i.e., divisions upon a ground bass.
Finally, in both the Haydn trio and the Mozart quintet each composer makes use of a common closing motivic gesture. In Haydn’s Trio it is a passing wave, in Mozart’s quintet it is part of the subject of the last movement and the focus of much its development.
Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, ending
Mozart String Quintet in C major, K. 515, Movement 4, opening
With that firmly in mind the legendary solo piano opening to the Beethoven concerto might easily evoke the end of one world and the beginning of another!
Violist Roger Tapping will be leaving the ranks of the BCMS member musicians to join the Julliard String Quartet when Samuel Rhodes, father of BCMS violinist Harumi Rhodes, retires from the quartet at the end of the 2012-13 season. Hear Roger’s last performance as a member musician on Sunday, November 11th, and join us at the reception after the concert to share your congratulations.
In Roger’s own words: “I really enjoy the top-quality music making and have felt wonderfully challenged, producing good, intense, beautiful performances quickly together and learning some less-trodden and zesty pieces I’d never played before.”
Welcome again, to our 30th Anniversary Season. Our October program precedes each of the two amazing Brahms String Sextets with two shorter works for strings that coincidentally share the same title, Capriccio. What’s in a word? Capriccio has been used throughout musical history to suggest flight of fancy, rhythmic or formal freedom, humor and, of course, virtuosity. Mendelssohn and Brahms also used it to denote short character pieces for piano. Our program is also the occasion for several chronological coincidences that, taken together, contribute to our October Surprises!
The introduction to our program is Richard Strauss’s overture to his last opera Capriccio, based on a libretto by Clemens Krauss. Much of the plot turns on a debate between rivals for the affection of a Countess. The subject of that debate, the primacy of words or music to express deep feelings, is summarized in the phrase ‘Prima le parole, dopo la musica.’ That this gorgeous sextet for strings takes ten minutes to play before anyone sings, and the entire debate is later accompanied by a full pit orchestra leaves little doubt about Strauss’s preference. The opera Capriccio was premiered in Munich on October 28, 1942.
Mendelssohn is known to have written several compositions for solo piano with the title Song Without Words. Marc-André Souchay asked what these songs meant, i.e., what they expressed. In a letter to Souchay dated October 15, 1842, nine months before writing his Capriccio (itself a ‘song without words’) for string quartet, Felix Mendelssohn responded:
“There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice I would finally have nothing more to do with music. People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…If you ask me what I was thinking of when I wrote [a piece] I would say: just the song as it stands. And if I happen to have had certain words in mind for one or another of these songs, I would never want to tell them to anyone, because the same words never mean the same things to different people. Only the song can say the same thing, can arouse the same feelings in one person as in another, a feeling which is not expressed, however, by the same words.”
The debate over how music moves us so directly, with and without words, has only grown since the time of the Romantic composers. I don’t think anyone has ever come away unmoved after hearing one of the great wordless instrumental chamber music of Johannes Brahms. Brahms continued the Classical tradition of writing abstract, absolute music (cf. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et. al.) against a rising tide of Romanticism as composers and audiences started to prefer music that illustrated mythological and literary characters, nature, and every day human life and emotions.
The two String Sextets of Brahms, although wordless and purely musical, provide at least two different ways of showing how absolute music speaks to us–by referring us back to other music we have known (evocative), and by referring to itself in its own present and recent past (developmental). Absolute music is often both evocative and developmental, but these sextets have the distinction of each being more one way than the other. The difference may be felt in what you can sing, and what you’d rather not. Both sextets are in the standard four-movement form we expect in larger chamber and symphonic works, but employ different combinations and orders of familiar movements and forms.
The first Sextet, in Bb, Op 18, premiered on October 20, 1860 in Hanover is throughout one of Brahms’s most melodic and tuneful. Emotional contrast is evident in changes in size of forces and register as phrases are repeated. The opening song-like theme, softly introduced by the cello and part of the group in low register, is soon to be taken up by the entire group as the violin enters and climbs to a higher plane.
Brahms String Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18, Movement 1, opening
A second quiet theme played by part of the group and accompanied by plucking viola and cello feels more like a gentle German waltz called a Ländler. It is very evocative of past social occasion and encounter. Even before we arrive at a standard development section, the two themes appear as song and dance.
The second movement is a set of variations based on a baroque theme known as La Folia. The theme would normally appear in the bass, in triple time, but has been changed by Brahms to duple with its chord choices still intact. It is an ancient form of writing variations we would all recognize in Pachelbel’s Canon and in Bach’s Chaconne.
The third movement is a combination Minuet with a Scherzo Trio that combines in one movement both the slow and fast forms of those traditional pairings with a Trio we have come to expect since the Baroque and throughout the Classical era.
The final movement in a Rondo form returns to the primacy of song melody heard in the first movement. It opens with another cello solo and repetitions in contrasting registers caressed within choruses of instruments, light and dark.
The Second Sextet in G Major, Op. 36, premiered in Zurich on November 20, 1866, shows Brahms’s ability to derive beautiful heartfelt music from the elements of music itself. That point can easily be made by trying to sing the openings of each sextet to a friend. In the second sextet the opening is not as much a tune as it is a texture made up of a nagging undulating pedal tone on a half-step in the first viola [G, F#, G], and the violin part that stacks intervals of perfect fifths–up, and triads–down above sustained chords. It is quite gorgeous, and definitely not easily sung! The most strategically important element–the one thing that generates so much of what happens in the rest of the entire piece–may be the least attractive: the undulating pedal [G, F#, G] moving back and forth throughout the first thirty-two bars of the movement, and many more later on.
Brahms String Sextet in G, Op. 36, Movement 1, opening
The second movement Intermezzo begins with its inversion [D, Eb, D], the first violin part, and the slow movement has it right side up at the beginning but split between the first violin and viola parts [B, A#, B]; the last movement opens the interval up from minor to major a the opening [E, F#, E] but returns to the minor interval in the middle of the second violin solo that starts the developmental fugato [E, F, E]. The smallest three-note cell has yielded all this music. The technique is common in the music of Bach, even in his Suites for solo cello which are both evocative and developmental. But, that’s not all.
Perhaps the most clever and poignant way Brahms brings these two means of musical expression together is with the use of words, in this case a personal name and a farewell greeting, at the climax of the first movement.
Brahms’s use of a cabalistic technique creating phrases of pitches spelled out of the names of musical tones is one he learned from his mentor, the great Romantic writer and composer, Robert Schumann. [Schumann could have learned it from Bach, and Bach from Guido D’Arezzo…] Brahms embedded the first name of Agathe von Siebold, a woman he had jilted years earlier, into the climax of the first movement. He spells out her name A-G-A-D-H-E and A D E to finally say “Agathe, Farewell.” Brahms told a friend, “I have freed myself of my last love.” (In German H=B; the clash of the suspended D to C# in the violin 2 part represents the letter T.)
Brahms String Sextet in B-flat, Op. 36, Movement 2, A-G-A-D-H-E
While it might have been intended as a farewell to his last love, for us, String Sextet, #2. Op. 36, became the first work of Johannes Brahms’s to be premiered in the United States, in Boston at the Mendelssohn Quintet Club on October 11, 1866!!