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String Sextet No.1 in B Flat Major Op.18

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

String Sextet No.1 in B Flat Major Op.18

1. Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante ma moderato
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Rondo: Poco allegro e grazioso

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Brahms certainly posed himself one in writing for the entirely novel medium of a string sextet. Having two violins, two violas and two cellos did not merely double the striking power of a trio or offer a fifty per cent increase over the output of a string quartet. In addition to the rich sonorities in which he could luxuriate when he wished, there were new combinations of timbre available to him and more variety of texture. The first of its kind, this melodious Sextet in B flat was composed in 1859-60 and published in 1862. It enjoyed such a success that Brahms returned to the medium in 1864-65 and composed a second sextet in G.

In structure (though not of course in texture) the Sextet in B flat follows precedents, the first movement being in orthodox sonata form. Spacious and leisurely compared with the stormy D minor Piano Concerto completed shortly before, it opens with the first cello giving out a flowing 3/4 melody. The second cello provides the bass, so already Brahms is exploiting the mediumís potential, offering a sonority he could not have obtained from a quartet. The cello tune is taken up by the first violin and viola. Brahms enjoyed transforming limbs of his melodies, and here the first violin's diminution (shorter note values) of the themeís opening provides a transitional passage which leads to a variant in remote A major of the theme's last phrase. The first cello introduces the second subject, a theme containing rising sixths already hinted at in the first-subject section. A waltz-like codetta completes this exposition, which is marked to be repeated. After a development section that generates energy with its repeated quavers the recapitulation is similar in structure to the exposition but differently scored.

The Andante is a set of variations on a D minor theme announced by the first viola with support from the other low instruments, then passed to the first violin. After three minor-key variations with progressively shortened note values the key turns to D major for an expressive violin and viola partnership and then a fifth variation in which the violas bring bagpipe music to mind. The final variation returns to D minor.

Brahms was later disinclined to write a true scherzo, but the vigorous third movement in F major is a good example of one. It has a strong Beethovenian trio section in the middle and a quick coda. The finale is an unhurried rondo, and as in the first two movements the lower instruments are allowed the first word. Although there are outbursts of energy in the course of the music, these are only transient departures from a predominant sweetness and grace.

© Eric Mason

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