Friday, July 22, 2011
Summermusic: Brahms & His String Sextets - Part 2
Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 includes the second of Brahms’ two string sextets. Written just about four years apart, they mark an important development in his finding his own voice. The B-flat Sextet, which you can read about in this previous post, was almost a political response to the modernist credo espoused by Franz Liszt and his “New German School,” finding a path toward the Music of the Future. Brahms had found his calling not in the future but by going Back to the Past.
The 2nd Sextet is not only a more assured work, it is more concentrated, better crafted and yet all that matters little to someone listening to it from a purely emotional viewpoint over 150 years later.
Instead, this post concentrates more on the personal life behind the music.
(You can hear a complete performance of the 2nd String Sextet recorded at the LaJolla SummerFest 2007 in an earlier post, here.)
So, in the midst of working on a serenade originally for a small group of strings and winds, he did so reluctantly, even if it was part of a holiday with Clara Schumann, her five youngest children, her half-brother, composer Woldemar Bargiel and violinist Joseph Joachim. It didn’t, however, take Brahms long to succumb to the charms of the town and especially some of the young ladies in town – one soprano named Agathe von Siebold, in particular.
Oh, those wild and crazy musicians… such larks…
At the end of this extended vacation, Brahms returned to Detmold, about 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, where he was employed part of the year as a “court musician,” performing with the orchestra there and teaching music to the family of Prince Leopold III. In addition to organizing chamber music concerts, he also conducted a women’s choir for whom he wrote numerous short choral works.
In addition to playing concertos by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin (I’m trying to imagine Brahms playing Chopin, but hey…), he also conducted his first Bach (the cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”) and was known to accompany Mozart violin sonatas by starting them in the wrong key to “test” his colleague’s transposition skills. As a composer, his B Major Piano Trio (the original version of Op. 8) and the G Minor Piano Quartet were received coolly.
Visiting Göttingen again in 1859, he and Agathe continued their friendship and apparently became secretly engaged. According to his friends, they seemed perfectly happy with each other.
Then he left for two performances of his finally completed D Minor Piano Concerto which was neither a success nor a failure in Hannover but which was frostily received in Leipzig five days later. After a long silence, perhaps three pairs of hands bothered to applaud before the hissing began. Critics called it “banal and horrid.”
By then, returning to see Agathe, Brahms suffered what today would be called “a fear of commitment.” When he wrote to her, "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 responded by breaking off the engagement.
To his friends, Brahms would admit to “playing the scoundrel” to Agathe. Over a decade later, he recalled those days, how he would like to have married but when his music was hissed in the concert hall and so icily received, he realized while this was something he himself could tolerate, returning alone to his room,
“...if, in such moments, I had had to meet the anxious, questioning eyes of a wife with the words ‘another failure’ – I could not have borne that! For a woman may love an artist… ever so much… and if she had wanted to comfort me – a wife to pity her husband for his lack of success – ach! I can’t stand to think what a hell that would have been.”
During the first months in Göttingen , he wrote several songs for Agathe to sing, many of them using a musical motif based on her name spelled out in notes
using the old German notation where B = B-flat and H = B-natural, where S (or Es) = E-flat and “As” = A-flat.
This idea of “carving” a motive out of a word or name was something he learned from Schumann who often used such motivic ideas – the “Abegg Variations” in which the name Abegg is spelled out in pitches A-B-E-G-G or the town where an old girlfriend lived, Asch, which became A–E-flat (the old German ‘Es’)–C–B-natural. There was one motive Schumann associated with his wife Clara, based on what letters could be turned into pitches: C-(L)-A-(R)-A but he would arbitrarily substitute B for L and G# for R.
There was also the “F-A-E Sonata” that Schumann, Brahms and Albert Dietrich collaborated on as a surprise for Joseph Joachim whose “lifestyle motif,” so the story goes, was “Frei aber Einsam,” Free but Lonely.
In the mid-1850s, Brahms and Joachim worked out an extensive fugue-writing correspondence. One of the fugues Brahms sent to Joachim wove together his F-A-E Motive with the pitches G#-E-A (G# = ‘gis’, A also = the solfege syllable “La”) which represented Joachim’s then-fiancé, Gisela von Arnim. (Later, Brahms would create a similar motive for his 3rd Symphony, the rising figure F-A-F for “Frei aber Froh,” Free but Happy…)
This idea was not new with Schumann, of course: Josquin des Pres did it in the 15th Century and Bach famously used his own name frequently in his music (B-flat–A–C–B-natural) as did other composers making direct references to the Great Johann Sebastian.
In the months following his break-up with Agathe, Brahms composed more songs, still occasionally employing the “Agathe Motive” but setting it to words about parting and lost love.
Brahms would use this “Agathe Motive” again in the 2nd String Sextet which he completed a few years after he and Agathe von Siebold parted ways.
*** ***** ******** ***** ***
Moving ahead a few years, Brahms had completed two new piano quartets and three versions of his Piano Quintet, before writing to his Göttingen friend Julius Grimm once again, asking how things were “in all the houses where one used to go so happily… of that house and gate – ” which he didn’t need to explain was the house where Agathe von Siebold lived with her father.
Grimm told him “the old Professor had died three years ago” and Agathe had taken a job the past year as a governess in Ireland where she teaches music and German to the daughters of a rich young English family. She had to get away, he said, from “the shadowed pages of her life… what a gloomy lot is that of a girl alone.”
Brahms returned to Göttingen and stood by that ruined gate, looking at the empty house (such images typical of the lovelorn poetry of the Romantic Age). In September, he composed the devastated and exalted songs of Op. 32 which included the lines “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to live for you, with you, and never die.”
That same month, he began the first movement of the 2nd String Sextet. The second movement was based on a Baroque-like gavotte he’d written (part of a collection of tongue-in-cheek dances in the early-1850s) contrasting with a jocose middle section. The original sketch of the slow movement’s variations was written in 1855 and the overall sound is basically “wandering, empty, tragic.” The finale sounds like it might be a proper scherzo with a warm contrasting section with a bit of a dance to it: perhaps a “last dance, at the end of an affair,” as Swafford describes it.
The opening is a gem of a motive – an oscillating G-F# connecting first a G Major triad and then, unexpectedly, an E-flat triad (the G being a common pitch). It would be possible to analyze this music in terms of these two sounds (the oscillation and the G—D , E-flat—B-flat) but the most striking element, considering the theme of this post, is a motive that appears in the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes of the Sonata’s exposition:
This is Agathe’s Motive - and at its most obvious, climactic point, it is repeated five times. Yet this time, there is another note inserted within the motive – a D – which helps spell out the word “Ade” or “Adieux, Farewell.” One could even sing "Agathe, ade" to this fragment of a melody.
Brahms is certainly saying farewell to Agathe, taking his leave, musically if not emotionally. Yet in the very first song he wrote for her – Op.14 No. 1 – this “ade” motive appears when the night-watchman sounds his horn as the lovers part.
We may think of this as purely abstract music with no literary allusions or suggestions of telling a story, the sort of thing Liszt and the New German School espoused. But even Brahms must have had something on his mind, here, when he was writing this – a young girl who used to sing his songs for him and with whom he once contemplated marriage.
Yet you can still appreciate the magic of this climactic moment whether you understand the symbolism or not. It is one of those aspects of great art, regardless of its 'political' persuasion, that allows you the opportunity of discovering new things.
- Dick Strawser