NOTES ON THE PROGRAM
Chamber Music Today’s second concert program celebrates the great Romantic composer Johannes Brahms, whose masterful craftsmanship has rightfully cemented his place among the most revered composers in all of history. Brahms’s final violin sonata, composed for his friend and colleague Hans von Bülow and premiered by Jenő Hubay as the composer’s Opus 108, is a feat of dramatic athleticism for the violinist and exemplifies the rich sonority of the composer’s harmonic language. Composed in 1865 to commemorate the death of his mother earlier that year, the Horn Trio features delightfully unique textures produced by the unusual combination of horn, violin, and piano, and is one of Brahms’s most treasured chamber music masterpieces. Concluding the program is a tour de force performance of the thrilling String Sextet no. 2 in G Major, offering each individual performer ample opportunity to both display their electrifying virtuosity and savor Brahms’s delicious melodies.
(Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, Vienna)
Violin Sonata no. 3 in d minor, op. 108
First performance: December 21, 1888, Budapest
Dedication: Baron Hans Guido von Bülow (1830–1894)
Other works from this period: Detailed in the notes below
Approximate duration: 25 minutes
By the year 1880, Johannes Brahms had risen to global renown as a pianist, composer, educator, and conductor. He had already completed two highly regarded symphonies (no. 1 in 1876 and no. 2 in 1877), two string quartets (published as the Opus. 51 set in 1873), and had more than enough performances and commissions to financially sustain his happily modest lifestyle. In 1881 alone, he played his second piano concerto at Meiningen (alongside conductor Hans von Bülow, with whom Brahms established a flourishing musical partnership) at least 22 times over a three-month period. Brahms even turned down offers for permanent directorship positions at Düsseldorf (1876) and the Cologne Conservatory (1884) in favor of maintaining his flexible touring and compositional life.
The name Joseph Joachim is one that is nearly synonymous with anything Brahms wrote for the violin. A Hungarian violinist and composer, the two met in 1853 when Brahms was a hardly-known composer and became close friends and collaborators.
Their relationship nearly ended in 1881, when Joachim accused his wife Amalie of having an affair with the music publisher Fritz Simrock. During the divorce hearings, Brahms wrote a letter to Amalie declaring his belief in her innocence and scathing Joachim for his groundless suspicions. To Brahms’s surprise, the letter was read aloud in court and was archived as public record. Joachim saw this as betrayal of their friendship, and severed ties with Brahms for six years. As a later peace offering, Brahms wrote his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in a minor for and dedicated it to Joachim (1887). Though Joachim’s response was lukewarm, the two clumsily repaired their personal and professional relationships, and Brahms soon also composed the Violin Sonata no. 3 for Joachim to debut.
The character of the third violin sonata is much stormier than his previous two, with the violin and piano both displaying intense virtuosity. Another oddity is that the third sonata contains four movements, while all of Brahms’ other sonatas feature just three. Opening with a traditional sonata-allegro form, the work starts as if picking up mid-way through a thought. The violin and piano wind down until the piano introduces a new theme, as if a fresh beginning for the opening movement. A final cadence in D major leads into the Adagio, where a pensive violin melody is guided by a patient piano accompaniment. The playful but brief Un poco presto e con sentimento makes way for the brilliant and often-performed Presto agitato finale.
The work was officially dedicated to pianist Hans von Bülow, who premiered it alongside Joachim. While it is indeed a violin sonata, the difficulty of the piano part is presumed to be the reason the sonata bears the dedication of a pianist instead of a violinist. Nevertheless, Bülow was a natural choice for the role; he was widely considered among the world’s greatest pianists and conductors of the nineteenth century. Brahms met Bülow at Meiningen, where Bülow served as director for five years before moving on to direct the Berlin Philharmonic.
– © 2017, Andrew Goldstein
Horn Trio in E-flat Major, op. 40
First performance: November 28, 1865, Zurich
Other works from this period: Sonata in f minor for Two Pianos, op. 34bis (1864); String Sextet no. 2 in G Major, op. 36 (1864–1865); Sixteen Waltzes for Solo Piano, op. 39 (1865); Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), op. 44 (1865–1868)
Approximate duration: 28 minutes
Brahms completed his Opus 40 Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano in 1865, months after the death of his mother, with whom he was close. The trio represents a poignant tombeau. (Brahms’s choral masterpiece, Ein deutsches Requiem, is likewise thought to commemorate his deceased mother.) The work’s unconventional instrumentation suggests its deep personal resonance: Brahms studied the horn as a child and may have been nostalgically compelled to substitute that instrument for the more conventional cello.
The first movement Andante begins with a lilting lullaby in the violin, marked dolce espressivo, and soon taken up by the horn. The music becomes more animated with the introduction of an unsettled second theme. The balance of the movement, rather than extensively developing these materials, simply swings back and forth between these contrasting humors.
The scherzo follows, its frenzied opening measures abbreviating the repose of the Andante’s final cadence. The sobering mournfulness of the scherzo’s trio section gives the listener pause, and while the second movement ends with a reprise of the extroverted scherzo, Brahms elaborates on the trio’s downcast character in the third movement. Marked Adagio mesto (“slow and sorrowful”), this movement can only be heard as the composer’s lament for his mother. Brahms instructs the pianist to play una corda, producing a softer, less radiant timbre. Above this haunting piano accompaniment, the violin and horn introduce a ghostly melody. The unaccompanied horn desolately cries out the elegiac second theme; the violin and piano quietly sympathize, as if comforting the bereaved.
Before the Adagio mesto expires, the horn introduces a new melody, taken from the German folk song “In der Weiden steht ein Haus” (“In the Meadow Stands a House”). Evidently a childhood favorite of Brahms that he learned from his mother, the folk song serves here as a nostalgic reminder of happier times. Though only briefly alluded to near the end of the slow movement, the tune erupts as the theme of the rambunctious Allegro con brio. What depths of despair Brahms achieves in the slow movement, he matches with ecstatic joy in the high-flying finale.
—© 2017 Patrick Castillo
String Sextet no. 2 in G Major, op. 36
Published: N. Simrock, Bonn, 1866
First performance: November 20, 1866, Zürich
Other works from this period: Sextet no. 1 in B-flat Major, op. 18 (1859–1860); Piano Quartet no. 1 in g minor and no. 2 in A Major, opp. 25 and 26 (1861); Piano Quintet in f minor, op. 34 (1862); Cello Sonata in e minor, op. 38 (1862–1865); Horn Trio in E-flat Major, op. 40 (1865)
Approximate duration: 40 minutes
While an unquestionably accomplished symphonist (despite the fourteen-year Beethoven-fueled neurosis that surrounded his First Symphony), Johannes Brahms especially thrived in writing for small forces. Following the death of Schumann in 1856, Brahms emerged as chamber music’s most significant voice. His chamber works, which span the whole of his artistic maturity, reflect the essence of his creativity and embody the spirit of the Romantic period. Musicologist Walter Frisch has written, “Brahms revived chamber music after the death of Schumann…and defined it for the later nineteenth century. Across forty years, from the Opus 8 Piano Trio (1854) to the Opus 120 clarinet sonatas (1894), ranges a corpus of twenty-four complete works that is arguably the greatest after Beethoven.” Brahms’s music represents the fulcrum of the Viennese tradition, successfully integrating the influence of his predecessors—Beethoven, Schubert, and others, not to mention the pre-Viennese influence of Bach and Heinrich Schütz, whose music he studied obsessively—and in turn serving as an important model for Schoenberg and the Second Viennese composers.
Brahms composed his String Sextet in G Major, op. 36, between 1864 and 1865. It is his second essay in the string sextet genre, following the Opus 18 Sextet of 1860. Like the other chamber works of Brahms’s early maturity, the Opus 36 Sextet displays the craftsmanship and sensitivity of an artist fully fledged despite his youth. Brahms’s expert handling of the string sextet sonority prevails throughout the work, as he exploits different instrumental and registral combinations to achieve a broadly expressive sonic palette.
Above a hushed, oscillating figure in the viola, the first violin proclaims the opening movement’s soaring first theme, its heroic melodic contour tempered by Brahms’s instruction to play mezza voce. The delicate balance contained in these measures between fortitude and restraint foreshadows a duality that pervades much of the sextet. The movement also represents the composer’s cathartic response to his ill-fated love affair with the amateur soprano Agathe von Siebold. Dropping the T (and with H used in German notation for the note B-natural), the robust second theme spells “Agathe”.
“Here,” Brahms, the lifelong bachelor, wrote of this passage, “I have freed myself from my last love.”
The scherzo exercises a similar restraint to that of the first theme of the Allegro non troppo. Its wistful manner descends to a whisper as the first violin and viola play a hushed triplet figure in stark octaves, marked tranquillo. The rambunctious country-dance of the trio section emphatically offsets the scherzo’s melancholy.
The Poco adagio is a theme and variations. Given the enigmatic profile of the opening section, the critic and Brahms intimate Eduard Hanslick referred to this movement as “variations on no theme.” A subtle yet striking moment occurs before the music yields to the first variation: a melodic fragment evokes the first theme of the opening movement.
Now in the relative key of e minor, Brahms transforms that musical idea into a melancholy sigh.
Five variations follow, which transfigure the mysterious theme in inventive and unexpected ways.
The finale begins with a breathless gallop of sixteenth notes before quickly settling into a more relaxed musical idea, crooned by the first violin in its lowest register. The cello introduces the billowing second theme beneath a reappearance of the sixteenth-note figure. As if emerging victorious from the introversion and agita of the preceding movements, the effervescence of these two ideas carries the sextet to a spirited coda. Along the way, demonstrating Brahms’s steady craftsmanship and deep admiration of the music of Bach, the movement’s development section features a fugue.
—© Patrick Castillo
Copyright 2016 Casual Classics Co. LTD I firstname.lastname@example.org
Web design copyright 2017 Andrew Goldstein