Brahms was twenty-seven by the time he came to write the First Sextet, an age by which his musical discretion was well able to resist the temptation to score too abundantly for the medium. His delight in composition can be understood from the outset as he explores the unusual sonorities at his disposal. His delight was perhaps heightened by his knowledge that composers of the eighteenth century preferred such larger ensembles for their divertimenti and other entertainment music. Brahms was increasingly interested in the use of ‘across the bar’ phrases of irregular length and he uses them here with delightful and telling effect. The beginning of the Sextet shows Brahms at his most adaptable since he altered it, on the advice of Joachim (a famous violinist friend), in order to postpone the modulation to D flat until after the tonic key had been established. The first movement is in sonata form with an exposition that ends with the suggestion of a Viennese waltz which, at a slower tempo, draws the movement to a close.
The following Andante is a set of variations—another ancient form much loved by Brahms and of which he was a true master. The music is wonderfully imagined for the forces available and carefully avoids textures that could be mistaken for those of the string quartet. The first variation employs the time-honored device of increasing the sense of movement by subdivisions of the music’s pulse.
The Scherzo is both vigorous and pithy, characteristics which are unusually continued in the trio section. Its similarity to the trio of the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has not escaped comment by critics.
The final Rondo owes not a little to Schubert and was criticized by Joachim for not being forceful enough in its concluding bars. He also, not without some justice, wished that Brahms had been able to achieve greater contrast between the first and second subjects. Nevertheless it concludes a fine work, not to be dismissed lightly, and certainly not as disdainfully as did Brahms himself in a letter to Clara Schumann which accompanied the manuscript of the first three movements. In it he entreated her to ‘burn the trash’ in order not to have the bother of returning it!