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String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36


Brahms’s Sextet in G major might be called his “Agathe” Sextet, because it is linked, whether as a salve to his conscience or as a farewell, to Agathe von Siebold, whom he had recently loved but rejected. Brahms wove a musical spelling of her name (or as close as he could get) into the continuation of the first movement’s beautiful second subject. The letter T is not available in musical terms so Brahms spelled it A–G–A–H–E (H is B-natural in German). Some have argued that he spelled it A–G–A–D–E, with the D coming out because it is so prominent in another voice, and that A–G–D is woven in elsewhere as well. In any case, the Sextet is a lovely tribute, though perhaps not as “Romantic” as, and certainly less exuberant than, the first Sextet in B-flat.

The whole Sextet, in fact, has a veiled or mysterious quality, projected from the outset by the chromatically juxtaposed rising fifths of the first subject and the continuous oscillating half step of the viola accompaniment. The interval of a fifth and its inversion, the fourth, are thematically important to all four movements. The second movement is the Scherzo, but a scherzo in 2/4 rather than the customary triple meter. Brahms breaks into triple meter for the Presto giocoso trio, which is a thematic outgrowth of the Scherzo theme.

The slow movement unfolds as a theme and variations, a form that held great fascination for Brahms ever since his student days with Eduard Marxsen. Brahms’s obvious examples in the form are his Haydn, Handel, Paganini, and Schumann variations and Fourth Symphony finale, but he also used variations frequently in his chamber music. The work ends with a turbulent sonata-rondo, in which the interval of a fifth is particularly exploited in the second theme.

Brahms completed the first three movements in September of 1864 and the last movement in May 1865. The first public performance took place in Boston at a Mendelssohn Quintet Club Concert on October 11, 1866; the first European performance took place over a month later in Zürich. The performance in Vienna on February 3, 1867, which is often cited as the first, drew censure from the critics and indifference from the public. Brahms’s circle, however, was enthusiastic and subsequent performances convinced the public of the work’s great merit.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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