Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (Last Update 08/05/2006)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

[Bullet6] Sonata in F Minor for Viola and Piano, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894)

[Bullet6] String Sextet No. 2 in G major Op. 36 (1864)

[Bullet6] Sonata in E Flat Major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 2 (1894)

[Bullet6] Quintet for two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano in F minor Op. 34 (1864)

[Bullet6] Two Songs for Contralto with Viola Obbligato Op. 9l (1884)

[Bullet6] Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn for Two Pianofortes Op. 56b (1873)

[Bullet6] Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115 (1891)

[Bullet6] String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67 (1875)


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

String Sextet No. 2 in G major Op. 36 (1864)

 

[brahms]

"The Brahms Sextet is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of Brahms, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. You feel a an undercurrent of surds (a quantity not capable of being expressed in rational numbers) of quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. But it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The Sextet was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."

 Vernon Blackburn, Pall Mall Gazette, London, February 28, 1900,

from The Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicholas Slonimsky (1953,1965)

 

Brahms actually composed two works for string Sextet, (Op.18 and Op.36), an ensemble comprised of a pair each of violins, violas and celli. Which of these two works does the above rather hyperbolic review refer to? Repeated listening to both works does not seem to resolve the question, as both works radiate a warmth hard to reconcile with mathematical formulae. (How would Vernon have reacted to composer Iannis Xenakis' composition based on The Kinetic Theory of Gases?) The Op. 36 Sextet, subtitled Agathe, uses both rhythm and musical notation, the notes A-G-A-H-E (forget the T, the "H" is B natural in German notation), to evoke the name of Brahms beloved, Agathe von Siebold (from whom he fled when marriage seemed expected and immanent.) "I love you! I must see you again, but I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!" She refused to see him and so ended the relationship. For his part, Brahms felt remorseful. "I have played the scoundrel toward Agathe," he wrote. However the composition of the Sextet proved cathartic for him. Referring to this composition he said, "I have emancipated myself from my last love." Work on the Sextet started some four years before his involvement with Agathe and was completed five years after their breakup.

 

The first movement, which opens in a hushed mysterious mood, contains the Agathe motto as well as a rhythmic motif at the end of the opening theme that suggests the syllabic stress of the name when spoken. This rhythmic motif can also be found in the second movement scherzo, as well as a lively stomping Landler-like Trio section. The third movement was described by the famous (make that infamous to Wagnerites) Viennese critic, friend and supporter of Brahms, Edward Hanslick as "variations on no theme." However careful listening will reveal this non-theme's resemblance to the opening theme of the first movement. The final movement alternates lively and relaxed episodes, fugal passages and long-lined songs. Emancipation at last from an unquiet conscience, perhaps?

 

The work was published in 1865 and dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse.

1996-97 Season, Program I, Sunday October 6, 1996

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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Sonata in E Flat Major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, No. 2 (1894)

 

[brahms taking a walk]

The ever self-critical Brahms had reached the point by 1890 where he felt that his composing days were over. His intentions were to complete some unfinished works, and consign the rest to the flames. However, a performance by the clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld (1856-1907) rekindled his desire to compose. The result was a series of works featuring the clarinet: the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115, and the two Clarinet Sonatas of Op. 120.

 

Muhlfeld, justly regarded as the finest clarinetist of his time, was self-taught on that instrument. He started his musical career as a violinist in the Grand Ducal Orchestra of Meiningen. After three years in that position, he switched to clarinet and became the orchestras first clarinet from 1876. It should be added that the excellence of the Meiningen Orchestra was due in no small part to Muhlfelds work as sub-conductor, rehearsing the players both singly and in groups.

 

The two Sonatas for Clarinet Op. 120 were the last pieces of chamber music composed by Brahms. These works share the autumnal and intimate qualities found in his late piano music (Ops. 116-119), composed between the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Sonatas. The Second Sonata in E Flat is a work in three movements rather than the four of the First Sonata. The first movement, Allegro amabile (amiably, or with love), contains three principal themes worked out by the two players who are equal partners in the discourse. The second movement, Allegro appassionato, is in scale and mood an intermezzo in the style of the late piano works: an animated folksong-like theme in 3/4 time followed by a somber trio section, with a return to the opening theme. The third movement, Andante con moto; Allegro, is a set of six variations on yet another folksong-like theme.

 

Both sonatas received their first performance in the home of the sister of the Duke of Meiningen at Berchtesgaden on Sept.19, 1894 with, of course, Richard Muhlfeld on clarinet and Brahms as pianist. These sonatas are also played in a version for viola in place of clarinet.

1996-97 Season, Program III, Sunday February 2, 1997

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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Quintet for two Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano in F minor Op. 34 (1864)

 

[young lion brahms]

"Brahms was built on big lines and was absolutely truthful. He couldnt tell even the ordinary conventional fib. His friends were as wax in his hands. He was as great a man as he was an artist. There was not a blot on his superb character. But he was not accustomed to restraining himself, nor withholding his tongue. If he disliked anything he would say so. Frankly, his bluntness combined with his rough manner made him appear very harsh.

 

The following remark of some wit was current in Vienna. One evening, Brahms, on taking leave of his hostess at a party said, "kindly excuse me if I by chance have forgotten to offend one of your guests."

Karl Goldmark (1830 - 1915)

Composer and friend of Brahms

 

In contrast to his somewhat slovenly personal appearance, Brahms was as fastidious and perfectionist a composer as could be found. Ever mindful of his predecessors, the giants of the Austro-German musical tradition, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he torched countless of his compositions. Some twenty string quartets were consigned to the flames so that three would be deemed acceptable and published. He always spoke of his music in a self-deprecating manner. (Though perhaps a "manner" it was.) "In the old days it was only my music I disliked. Now its the titles as well. Is all this due to vanity?" Florence Mays 1905 biography of the composer contains the following anecdote. "Yes gentlemen, observed [his Coblenz host] solemnly as the guests sat in almost reverential silence, inhaling the bouquet of some rare old Rauenthaler that had been reserved for the end of the repast, What Brahms is among the composers, so is this Rauenthaler among the wines. Ah, then lets have a bottle of Bach now! cried Brahms."

 

The Piano Quintet went through interesting instrumental transformations before arriving at the form in which it is known today. This work actually started out as a quintet for strings following Schuberts instrumentation: two violins, viola, and two cellos. As was often the case, Brahms sent the work to his friend the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim for critique. Although he liked the piece at first, after rehearsing it, Joachim felt that it lacked charm and that Brahms should "mitigate the harshness of some passages." Brahms complied, yet after another hearing the work was still felt to be wanting. It was only in his fireplace that the work briefly gave off the warmth and light that it otherwise lacked. Brahms then completely rewrote the piece as a sonata for two pianos, which he, along with pianist Karl Tausig, performed in Vienna. In this form critics poorly received the work, and its lack of warmth was attributed to the employment of pianos rather than strings. Despite the negative reaction, Brahms did publish the work in this form as his Op. 34b. (So much for the opinion of the critics.) It was Clara Schumann, his other superb musical confidant, who suggested that the work be recast as a quintet for piano and string quartet. Her late husband, composer Robert Schumann, an early supporter and champion of Brahms, had set the standard for this medium with his Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44. It is in this form that this monumental work was published in 1865, and has gained a place of eminence in the chamber music repertory.

 

The first public performance (given Brahms circle of excellent musician friends, private performances were common) was given in Paris by pianist Louise Langhans-Japha on March 24, 1868. (Langhans are a big help in playing this work.) The names of the string players on this occasion are now unknown. The Piano Quintet was dedicated to Princess Anna of Hesse.

 

The Quintets first movement is dramatic and of epic scale. By contrast the second movement consists of the leisurely unfolding of a long-lined melody. The third movement scherzo is as restless and exciting a movement as there is to be found in all of Brahms. The finale returns to the large scale and drama of the first movement, as the work seems to stretch the sonorities of chamber music to the limits.

1995-96 Season, Program V, Sunday May 12, 1996

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Johannes Brahms(1833-1897)

Two Songs for Contralto with Viola Obbligato Op. 9l (1884)

 

 

Given his substantial melodic gift, it is not surprising that Brahms produced a large body of vocal music, with more than 200 songs to his credit; over 100 folksong settings, vocal duets and quartets, as well as choral works, accompanied and unaccompanied.

 

"The Two Songs for Contralto with Viola Obbligato Op. 9l ", writes Philip F. Radcliffe in the Fifth Edition of Groves, "Are among the most expansive that Brahms wrote in his later years. Gestillte Sehnsucht is notable for its spacious flowing melodic lines and Geistliches Wiegenlied for the skill which the traditional carol "Joseph, lieber Joseph mein" is woven into the texture."

 

This lullaby was written for Amalie and Joseph Joachim, the noted violinist and musical confidant of Brahms, who were awaiting the birth of their first child. As the voice sings the lyric to the poem, the obligatory viola plays the melody of the carol. Brahms even wrote the words to the 14th Century German carol under the violas part: Joseph, o dear Joseph mine, help me rock the child divine, God reward both thee and thine, in Paradise, so prays the Mother Mary.

 

A word on obbligato: The performance of these songs requires a vocalist, of course, with piano accompaniment. The word obbligato originally referred to an instrumental part that must not be omitted. However, the term has often come to mean, through carelessness or misunderstanding, a mere accompanying part that may be omitted if necessary. Brahms, the musical scholar, clearly had the original meaning in mind.

1995-96 Season, Program II, Sunday December 3, 1995

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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn for Two Pianofortes Op. 56b (1873)

[brahms]

 

I sometimes ponder on variation form and it seems to me it ought to be more restrained, purer. Composers in the old days used to keep strictly to the base of the theme, as their real subject. Beethoven varies the melody, harmony and rhythms so beautifully. But it seems to me that a great many moderns (including both of us) are more inclined - I dont know how to put it - to fuss about the theme. We cling nervously to the melody, but we dont handle it freely, we dont really make anything new out of it, we merely overload it. And so the melody becomes quite unrecognizable.

Brahms to Joseph Joachim (Dusseldorf, June l856)

 

Music for two pianos or one piano 4 hands, played a special role in the pre-audio recording era. This medium made the orchestral works of the great composers available to music lovers who would otherwise have to wait for a performance by their local orchestras, if that happened. After all, in the 19th Century this music was contemporary music. This medium also played an important part in ballet and opera, for rehearsal purposes: it was in the two piano version that the Diaghilev entourage and Claude Debussy first heard Stravinskys revolutionary Rite of Spring.

However, for Brahms the two piano medium had another purpose. Dr. Hans Gal, musicologist and composer writes of Brahms, "With uncanny insight into the most elusive secrets of great music and a resulting consciousness of the almost insoluble problems of creating a truly great work, Brahms tendency to an almost hypochondriac mistrust in his own music, became more and more accentuated and he was unable to speak of his work without deliberate understatement, even contempt. With a less elementary, exuberant creative gift, such an attitude would have been a grave danger to his productivity. What he incessantly demanded from his expert friends was a critical response, and his greatest happiness was a confirmation that once more, he had succeeded." Possibly overstated, but our concern is that the two piano medium enabled Brahms to present his works to his valued musical confidants; among them Clara Schumann, one of the finest pianists of her time and, Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, before releasing them to the world at large. Brahms First Piano Concerto, though originally conceived as a symphony, had an incarnation as a Sonata for Two Pianos before arriving at its final form. His Piano Quintet in F Minor op. 34 also had an incarnation as a sonata for two pianos. All of his symphonies were prepared in versions for two pianos for private previews, or to be sent to musician friends for critique.

 

The Variations on a Theme of Haydn is a work that is most familiar in its orchestral version. It was his first large work for symphony orchestra, predating his symphonies. The theme is the so-called St. Anthony Chorale (Chorale Sancti Antoni), a pilgrims hymn for the feast day of Saint Anthony. Brahms found it in the second movement of a Feldpartie or Divertimento for Wind Instruments in B flat attributed to Haydn.

 

The work consists of the theme with eight variations plus a finale in the form of a chaconne. The chaconne, itself, is a form of variation, where a bass figure is repeated, in this case l7 times, while the voices above it vary with each repetition of the figure, building to a great climax. This work was played frequently by Brahms himself with Clara Schumann. It is not known for certain which version actually came first, the orchestral or the two piano -who cares? Enjoy the music.

1995-96 Season, Program I, Sunday October 8, 1995

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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Sonata in F Minor for Viola and Piano, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894)

By 1890, the ever self-critical Brahms had reached the point where he felt that his composing days were over. His intentions were to complete some unfinished works, and consign the rest to the flames. However, a performance by the clarinettist Richard Muhlfield (1856-1907) rekindled his desire to compose. The result was a series of works featuring the clarinet: the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet Op. 115, and the two Clarinet Sonatas of Op. 120.

The two Sonatas for Clarinet were the last pieces of chamber music composed by Brahms. These works share the autumnal and intimate qualities found in his late piano music Opp.116-119. The Clarinet Sonata in E Flat Major, Op. 120 No. 2 was performed during the 1996-97 Season of the Sierra Chamber Society. However, Brahms also created versions of both these Sonatas in which he substituted the viola for the clarinet. It is the version for viola and piano that will be heard in today’s performance of the First Sonata in F Minor. Depending on ones love of, or tolerance for, wind instruments in general , (and clarinets in particular), the viola version is arguably as satisfying, if not more so, a realization of the music. This Sonata is the larger scaled and more emotional of the pair, due chiefly to the dramatic Allegro appassionato in which a number of themes are presented. As a musical dialogue, or argument, the piano engages in emotional outbursts, only to calmed by the gentle, reasoned voice of the viola. Both the second movement Andante un poco adagio, and the third movement Allegro grazioso are species of Intermezzi, here as duets, as found in those late piano works mentioned above. The second Landler-like theme in the third movement bears quite a resemblance to that of the Intermezzo Op. 116, No. 6. The other major difference between these two sonatas is that while the Second Sonata has only three movements, the last being a set of variations, this Sonata has four movements, the last of which is a rondo marked Vivace (lively).

Both Sonatas received their first performance in the home of the sister of the Duke of Meiningen at Berchtesgaden on Sept.19, 1894 with Richard Muhlfeld on clarinet, and Brahms himself as pianist.

1997-98 Season, Program III, Sunday February 1, 1997

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Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115 (1891)

The Clarinet Quintet is an autumnal work, composed at a time when Brahms was haunted by the fear that his creative force had dried up. After hearing a performance by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856 – 1907), a member of Hans von Bülow’s Meiningen Orchestra, inspiration returned. Brahms was so taken with Mühlfeld’s magnificent playing that he composed four extended works for clarinet; the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, and the two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120. For his part, Mühlfeld’s musicianship must have been formidable. He had originally been a violinist, and served as sub-conductor of the orchestra – then one of Europe’s finest.

The Clarinet Quintet itself was inspired by and modeled upon the other towering work in this genre – the Clarinet Quintet, K.581 (1789) of Mozart. Both works share an atmosphere of serenity colored by warm melodies, as well as a wonderful interplay of both solo and concertante functions among the five players. Further following Mozart’s example, Brahms used a set of variations on an original theme as the final movement.

The work was premiered in Berlin on Dec. 12, 1891 by the Joachim Quartet, with of course, Mühlfeld as clarinetist. It was, in fact, the first time that this renowned quartet ever used an assisting artist other than a string player- prompting the remark by a contemporary that "it was on this occasion that the Joachim Quartet lost its virginity".

1999-2000 Season, Program III, Sunday February 6, 2000

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"The god of my own youthful adoration was Brahms, and I wrote flagrantly in the manner of the immortal Johannes"

Georges Enescu

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67 (1875)

"It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table"

Brahms (on quartet writing)

The story goes that Brahms destroyed some twenty string quartets before arriving at what he considered his "first" quartet, which then went through almost twenty years of revising, polishing and fussing before he allowed it to be published. The B Flat quartet was the last of his three string quartets; composed during a pleasant summer vacation spent near Heidelberg. This quartet is said to be the most lighthearted of Brahms’ chamber music, though at the time of its composition, he was laboring on his First Symphony Op. 68 (1876), which had an even longer gestation period and harder labor than the quartets. Indeed "the immortal Johannes" was 43 at the time he finished his First Symphony. (Of course, depending on you own age, that could be either a "young man" or an "old fogy") In any case, the symphonies and string quartets of Beethoven loomed as huge obstacles to Brahms. When he appeared on the music scene, as a young man, he was hailed as the successor to Ludwig van. The mantle became a straitjacket, the crown, a crown of thorns. I imagine that there were times when he would have wished he were back in the dives on the Hamburg waterfront, playing the piano for drunken sailors and whores.

If Beethoven’s first quartets supposedly cowed Haydn into giving up on the medium he himself created, imagine how the late quartets acted upon a composer as sensitive to "The Tradition" as Brahms. Though at first he claimed this quartet to be "a useless trifle", in later years Brahms admitted to its being his favorite among his quartets.

The quartet open in a jolly mood, with a theme evocative of the calls of hunting horns in 6/8 meter, which alternates with a jaunty little tune in 2/4 time. Brahms later combines the two meters, as he was often to do in his late piano music producing his characteristic effect of "two against three". The lyrical second movement opens with a lovely long-lined melody containing some surprising harmonizations. In the course of it’s unfolding, it is interrupted by an outburst of chords, which do not succeed in breaking the spell of the melody as it continues on to its peaceful "amen" conclusion. The third movement is marked Agitato, and agitated it is, rather than being a high spirited scherzo one might expect in a work as supposedly "lighthearted" as this. In his informative Guide to Chamber Music1, Melvin Berger quotes Brahms as calling this third movement "the tenderest and most impassioned movement I have ever written". The fourth movement is comprised of a theme followed by eight variations. The theme itself is actually derived from the opening horn call theme of the first movement. Brahms reveals this in the seventh variation. He then combines the fourth movement theme with the first movement theme from which it was derived, to bring the work to a close.

The B flat major quartet was first performed in Berlin on June 4. 1876. By Brahms’ close friend violinist Joseph Joachim’s famed Joachim Quartet.

Brahms would not have found it fabulously hard to leave these notes under the table.

1 Berger, Melvin. Guide to Chamber Music. Anchor Books Doubleday ,N.Y. ©1985,1989

2000-2001 Season, Program II, Sunday, December 10, 2000

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All original text on this page Copyright 2000 by Joseph Way