Our October Surprises

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!!

And that is, for now, our final October surprise.


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