Brahms wrote his first chamber work for strings, the String Sextet No.1, in 1859, in the wake of the most emotionally tumultuous years of his young life. But it was the second, written in 1864, in which he attempted to make sense of the earlier drama; and in so doing, Brahms was to commemorate the two women closest to his heart: Agathe von Siebold and Clara Schumann.
The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann is well documented, and by the end of 1856 had reached a shattering conclusion: while Clara now openly loved Brahms, and was free to do so following the decline and death of her (also beloved) husband Robert, Brahms himself made it clear that he had no intention of marrying her, despite having loved her for so long. His love for her would remain in this state throughout his life; idealised, imagined, but never to become a real, sustained relationship. Clara’s love, too, remained, but was mingled with forgiveness, and admiration for his music. It was not long after this crisis that Brahms was introduced to Agathe von Siebold, in the summer of 1858.
Though not conventionally pretty, Agathe had a voluptuous figure, a great sense of fun, a beautiful soprano voice and long, dark hair about which Brahms’ great friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, said: “How delightful to run your hands through such hair!”. The relationship between Brahms and Agathe was essentially chaste, but passionate; when Clara caught the pair embracing one day during mid-September 1858, she fled in jealous dismay: “He left me alone with words of love and devotion, and now he falls for this girl because she has a pretty voice”. Though the relationship seemed decorous, the friends who had introduced Brahms to Agathe hinted that her reputation was at risk unless he proposed; which he duly did, and was accepted.
However, the reception of Brahms’ music was to strike a fatal blow to the relationship. Performances of his Piano Concerto No.1 D minor met with a frosty reception. Brahms had already experienced misgivings about his ability as a provider when faced with the prospect of supporting Clara and her children; now he faced a similar quandary, as he later recalled to his friend George Henschel:
“At the time I should have liked to marry, my music was either hissed in the concert hall, or at least received with icy coldness. Now for myself, I could bear that quite well, because I knew its worth, and that some day the tables would be turned. And when, after such failures, I entered my lonely room I was not unhappy. On the contrary! But 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 … still she cannot have the perfect certainty of victory which is in his heart. 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.”
This attitude prompted the fateful note to Agathe which tries to camouflage its painful message amid passionate desire:
“I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters! Write to me, whether I am to come back, to take you in my arms, to kiss you and tell you that I love you.”
Though much of their correspondence was burnt by both protagonists, these words were quoted by Agathe in a novel written late in her life about herself and Brahms. She had eventually married happily, but the pain of Brahms’ memory lingered. At the time, she had written to him ending the engagement and returning his ring. The two never met again, and both were devastated.
Brahms was full of remorse, telling a friend: “I have played the scoundrel towards Agathe.” It was not long after this series of events that Brahms wrote his String Sextet No.1; though while the songs of the 1860s betray much of what Brahms was feeling at this time, the first sextet cannot be interpreted as a direct reflection of external events. Nevertheless, a parallel may be drawn between the fear Brahms evidently felt at stepping into the shoes of his dear friend Robert Schumann as husband and protector of Clara, and the trepidation he felt in attempting to emulate another composer whom he held in great esteem: Beethoven. Brahms was not comfortable with comparisons between himself and those he admired, and this may in part explain why he began his output of chamber music for strings with a sextet, rather than with a quartet, which Beethoven’s example would have overshadowed.
Furthermore, the fuller sonority of the sextet suited Brahms’ love of weaving rich contrapuntal tapestries, while the presence of a second cello allows for the exploitation of the first instrument’s melodic capabilities, which Brahms clearly valued (as in the exquisite cello solo opening the Second Piano Concerto’s Andante). The Sextet duly begins with a cello theme, answered by first violin and first viola in octaves, a device suggested by Joachim, who led the work’s premiere in Hanover in October 1860, in the presence of the composer – and Clara Schumann, for whom Brahms made a piano arrangement of the second movement as a birthday present. The first movement, based upon an Austrian Ländler, unfolds with a sense of surging forward momentum, swept along on a current of imitative rhythms. Just as Brahms shied away from emotional intimacy, so too his treatment of six instruments here, though glorious, is distinct from the intimate dialogue of a quartet, the sextet’s richer sonority allowing for a broader blend of sound, in which the protagonists are cushioned rather than exposed.
The slow movement begins with a sombre, studied theme that undergoes a series of variations in which Brahms’ learned, technical execution is tempered by stormy Romantic gestures, the whole lightened by the fourth and fifth variations in D major, when lyricism and levity creep in. Brahms need not have dreaded comparisons: his Scherzo has all the joie de vivre of Haydn’s, or indeed Beethoven’s, most extrovert quartet-writing, underpinned by a deft control of the ensemble’s resources that either master would have relished. Joachim ventured to suggest amendments to the expansive rondo finale, requesting more contrast between the themes, but Brahms left the original untouched, evidently content with the amiable, folk-like quality and unhurried exploration of its material.
In the summer of 1864, while he was holidaying in Lichtental in the Black Forest, Brahms heard that Agathe had left Germany to become a governess in Ireland. Agathe’s desire was to escape the painful memories wrought by the preceding years. His own memories stirred, Brahms decided to involve his next composition, the Sextet No.2, in a rare act of catharsis, by embedding in it explicit references both to Agathe and to Clara. In 1855, when Robert Schumann was ailing and the relationship between Brahms and Clara was becoming fraught with ambiguity, Brahms included a yearning melody in a letter to Clara, not daring further to articulate his love for her. This theme, heard in its entirety during the sextet’s slow movement, pervades the entire work, its pair of ascending fourths appearing in the guise of fifths to open the first movement. On perusing the work, Joachim noted another allusion, in the first movement’s climax, where Brahms traces his lost love’s name: A-G-A-H-E (the ‘H’ in German denoting B natural.) As though to accentuate the mixed feelings associated with both women, the first movement is mercurial and enigmatic, a quality heightened by the viola’s unsettling semitones.
Just as the ‘Clara’ theme dated back several years, so too Brahms harked back to earlier music for the basis of his Scherzo, which stems from a Gavotte in A minor he had written a decade before. More introspective than the Scherzo of the first sextet, the light pizzicato texture does little to lift the serious tone, which renders the explosively boisterous nature of the Trio section all the more surprising.
The slow movement, another theme and variations, might be said to encapsulate the composer’s view of Clara. Whereas Agathe was treated to music of unreserved passion, Clara’s theme undergoes a more complex journey; its wistful opening gives way to the contrapuntal rigour of the third variation, with which Brahms could almost have been trying to impress this woman of undeniably formidable intellect. The unrest is dissipated by the gorgeous final variation in E major, marked molto dolce. This is quintessential Brahms: a sense of vicarious pleasure, an appreciation of imagined bliss, but with a sense of detachment; a longed-for happiness that he chose not to pursue.
The catharsis over, Brahms celebrates with an apparently carefree finale in which recurrent tremolos ensure that a skittish yet graceful air is maintained throughout. The use of tremolos may betray the influence of Schubert, who used the device in his great G minor Quartet and in the Quartettsatz, and whose String Quintet in C major, which employs two cellos, may have provided Brahms with an essential example on which to model his sextets. Certainly, the harmonic dexterity of Schubert is approached by the skilful, often extreme, modulations which permeate both sextets, but the spirit, and the complex history behind it, is undeniably that of Brahms.
Joanna Wyld, 2007