Our music for this week is the Sextet in B-flat major by Johannes Brahms.
There are very few string sextets in existence. Schubert and Bocherinni are two of the composers who have written sextets, but Brahms’ B-flat sextet is considered the leading work in this relatively niche field. Many musicians consider this to be rather ironic since, as a pianist, Brahms struggled tremendously when writing for stringed instruments. His genius at the keyboard somehow didn’t entirely translate over to his compositions for strings despite his close friendship with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim. Nonetheless, he wanted to compose a string sextet in honor of his dear friend Robert Schumann and, in particular, he wanted to explore the strengths of the deeper stringed instruments – the viola and the cello. It is therefore no surprise that the opening melody of the piece is played by the cello and the opening melody of the second movement’s variations scheme is introduced by the viola.
The sextet has four movements: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, and Rondo. Listen for themes that get repeated throughout the work. For instance, you’ll hear the main melody of the first movement being recycled in the fourth movement at different points. You might also listen for the portions of this theme that Brahms sprinkles throughout all four movements. You will never hear the theme in its entirety, but you may – if you listen closely – have a deja vu moment once in a while.