Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18

For most of the nineteenth century, a shadow hung over German music, a shadow from which up-and-coming composers struggled to emerge. The shadow was that of Beethoven, whose dominance in virtually every genre of music was so complete that no composer could escape comparison to the departed master. In whatever field one wished to work – symphony, sonata, concerto, quartet – Beethoven had set the mark against which all others would be measured.

Confidence was not a strong characteristic of the 27 year-old Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897). He thwarted Beethoven’s specter by putting off symphonies and quartets until later in his career, by which time he had honed his skills through work in other genres not linked to Beethoven’s name. These compositions, spared from the shadow, were able to stand on their own merits, and through them, Brahms developed the confidence he would need to write a symphony.

One such early effort is Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1, scored for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos.

At the time, the young composer was spending his summer as music master of the royal court of Detmold, where his duties were sufficiently limited as to allow much opportunity for pleasant walks in the woods.

Upon completing the piece Brahms sent it to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, with a note reading, “I have been quite a long time over it and I do not suppose that this will have raised your expectations… but with God’s help, nothing is impossible.” Joachim, after playing through the piece with friends, expressed cautious optimism and arranged a premiere in Hanover on October 20, 1860. Brahms was present for the occasion, as was his dear friend Clara Schumann, who remarked of the piece, “It was even more beautiful than I had anticipated, and my expectations were already high.” Spared the burden of Beethoven’s ghost, the new sextet – and its young creator – scored a success.

Brahms

Johannes Brahms, (born May 7, 1833, Hamburg [Germany]—died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria-Hungary [now in Austria]), was a German composer and pianist of the Romantic period, who wrote symphonies, concerti, chamber music, piano works, choral compositions, and more than 200 songs. Brahms was the great master of symphonic and sonata style in the second half of the 19th century. He can be viewed as the protagonist of the Classical tradition of Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in a period when the standards of this tradition were being questioned or overturned by the Romantics.

The chief of these was the nature of Schumann’s encomium itself. There was already conflict between the “neo-German” school, dominated by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and the more conservative elements, whose main spokesman was Schumann. The latter’s praise of Brahms displeased the former, and Brahms himself, though kindly received by Liszt, did not conceal his lack of sympathy with the self-conscious modernists. He was therefore drawn into controversy, and most of the disturbances in his otherwise uneventful personal life arose from this situation. Gradually Brahms came to be on close terms with the Schumann household, and, when Schumann was first taken mentally ill in 1854, Brahms assisted Clara Schumann in managing her family. He appears to have fallen in love with her; but, though they remained deep friends after Schumann’s death in 1856, their relationship did not, it seems, go further.

Between 1857 and 1860 Brahms moved between the court of Detmold—where he taught the piano and conducted a choral society—and Göttingen, while in 1859 he was appointed conductor of a women’s choir in Hamburg. Such posts provided valuable practical experience and left him enough time for his own work.

By 1861 he was back in Hamburg, and in the following year he made his first visit to Vienna, with some success. Having failed to secure the post of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic concerts, he settled in Vienna in 1863, assuming direction of the Singakademie, a fine choral society. His life there was on the whole regular and quiet, disturbed only by the ups and downs of his musical success, by altercations occasioned by his own quick temper and by the often virulent rivalry between his supporters and those of Wagner and Anton Bruckner, and by one or two inconclusive love affairs. His music, despite a few failures and constant attacks by the Wagnerites, was established, and his reputation grew steadily. By 1872 he was principal conductor of the Society of Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde), and for three seasons he directed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His choice of music was not as conservative as might have been expected, and though the “Brahmins” continued their war against Wagner, Brahms himself always spoke of his rival with respect. Brahms is sometimes portrayed as unsympathetic toward his contemporaries. His kindness to Antonín Dvořák is always acknowledged, but his encouragement even of such a composer as the young Gustav Mahler is not always realized, and his enthusiasm for Carl Nielsen’s First Symphony is not generally known.
In between these two appointments in Vienna, Brahms’s work flourished and some of his most significant works were composed. The year 1868 witnessed the completion of his most famous choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem).

Gradually Brahms’s renown spread beyond Germany and Austria. Switzerland and the Netherlands showed true appreciation of his art, and Brahms’s concert tours to these countries as well as to Hungary and Poland won great acclaim. The University of Breslau (now the University of Wrocław, Poland) conferred an honorary degree on him in 1879. The composer thanked the university by writing the Academic Festival Overture (1881) based on various German student songs. Among his other orchestral works at this time were the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878) and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major (1881).

Brahms remained in Vienna for the rest of his life. He resigned as director of the Society of Friends of Music in 1875, and from then on devoted his life almost solely to composition. When he went on concert tours, he conducted or performed (on the piano) only his own works. He maintained a few close personal friendships and remained a lifelong bachelor. He spent his summers traveling in Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. During these years Brahms composed the boldly conceived Double Concerto in A Minor (1887) for violin and cello, the powerful Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor (1886), and the Violin Sonata in D Minor (1886–88). He also completed the radiantly joyous first String Quintet in F Major (1882) and the energetic second String Quintet in G Major (1890).

Pablo Casals held an annual festival held in Prades, a small mountain village in France, 40 km from Perpignan. In 1939 Pablo Casals exiled himself there as a protest against General Franco’s regime in Spain. Ten years later Casals was visited by the violinist Alexander Schneider, who offered him substantial contracts for an American tour; Casals refused, but agreed to the idea of inviting musicians to Prades to perform with him in commemoration of the bicentenary of Bach’s death. The event’s success led to its being repeated annually during July and August.