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String Sextet no. 1 B flat major, op. 18

Version for String Orchestra (arrangement Günther Pichler)
Johannes Brahms
Length: 37'
Allegro ma non troppo
Tema con varizioni. Andante, ma moderato
Scherzo. Allegro molto
Rondo. Poco allegretto e grazioso

Johannes Brahms was twenty-six years old as he began work on his String Sextet, Op.18. Six years earlier he had become acquainted with the Hungarian violinist, Eduard Hoffmann, known as Remenyi, and undertook a concert tour in Lower Saxony with him. In Hannover, he made contact with the influential violinist Joseph Joachim, who recommended him to Clara and Robert Schumann in Dösseldorf. Schumann recognized the exceptional talents of the young artist. He wrote an article which became famous in the "Neue Zeitschrift för Musik" entitled "New Paths" where he praised Brahms as one who must come into his own and saw to it that Breitkopf & Härtel published Brahms' compositions. 


The composition of the String Sextet, Op.18, demonstrates that Brahms liked to present new pieces to his friends for an appraisal.  He began writing the work in 1859 and already in December of that year he sent a manuscript of the first movement to Clara Schumann. He also forwarded parts of the piece to Julius Otto, who mentioned the first two movements in his answering letter; in the spring of 1860, the scherzo as well. Brahms sent the complete work to Joachim, who had also already seen the sextet (except for the final movement) in September 1860.  On Joachim's advice, Brahms began the piece with the cello. 


He gave the piano arrangement of the second movement to Clara Schumann for her birthday.  The public premiere took place in Hannover on the 20th of October, 1860.  (Joachim played with five colleagues from the manuscript). The sextet appeared in print for the first time in January, 1862.  The first movement (B Flat major, 3/4) is conceived in sonata form. At the start of the exposition, Brahms introduces two themes, both presented by the first cello. Between the two themes, Brahms inserted a Ländler in A Major (!)  after which the second theme stands out more clearly.  The second part, the development, features two buildups and the climax of the second one leads into the third part, the recapitulation (where the themes of the exposition return).  With a quotation of the first four bars of the main theme, a transition to the last part, the coda, begins.  The movement ends with a further development of a motif from the exposition. 


The second movement (d minor, 2/4) consists of a two-part theme (that is repeated), six variations and a coda. The first, second third and sixth variations remain in the main key, while the fourth and fifth, as well as the coda, are in D major. In the first three variations, there is figuration of the theme becoming rhythmically more and more lively. The fourth and especially the fifth are structured more freely, the sixth quotes the theme again and leads (instead of repeating the two parts) to the coda, which brightens into D major. 


The andante is followed by a buoyant scherzo (F major, 3/4), whose compact and full voicing lends the piece an orchestral character. The scherzo ends with a coda, at the beginning of which Brahms reverts to the main motif of his trio, note for note. Brahms cast the finale (B Flat major, 2/4) in the form of a rondo (with the structure A-B-A-C-A-B-A). The middle section (C) has the character of a development, in which the motivic material has already been prepared in the first formal parts (A and B). The return of the first three parts (A-B-A) has the markings of a kind of recapitulation, characterized by a shortening of the transitions and clear modifications to the themes. In the last A section, Brahms divided the first part of the theme between two instrumental groups (first and second violin plus first viola vs. second viola with first and second cello). A coda, whose motivic material is taken (in a reduced form) from the middle section of the first theme, concludes the work. (Christian Bühm)