Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)

I. Allegro non troppo
II. Scherzo - Allegro non troppo - Presto giocoso
III. Adagio
IV. Poco allegro

Brahms was one of the great Romantic composers. None other than Robert Schumann wrote that he was "destined to give ideal expression to the times." In addition to looking forward with groundbreaking rhythms and lush harmony he was a student of the past: Bach, for the art of counterpoint, and Mozart and Beethoven for their classical mastery in structure.

Labeled “old-fashioned” by some contemporary critics when compared to the works of Wagner, the two camps developed a deep rivalry: Brahms felt music should be “absolute” and not refer to an external text, Wagner was known for opera; Brahms was highly disciplined whereas Wagner’s wrote free tone “poems.” Brahms went on to teach Alexander Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s teacher (Brahms also admired the works of the young Schoenberg) and it was Schoenberg who wrote Verklärte Nacht, a work that ultimately reconciled the two camps. Prophetically, near the end of his life Brahms considered retiring as he felt the prevailing winds would lead to the rule of tonality being broken altogether. This, of course, became a reality in Schoenberg’s late career with the first noticeable structural cracks clearly visibly for all to see in Verklärte Nacht. Nonetheless, Schoenberg saw Brahms as the spiritual father of his experiments in atonality and the Second Viennese School he was to found.

Brahms wrote his G Major sextet in 1864 in bucolic surroundings near Baden-Baden, Germany, a world away from the poverty of his youth. The son of a town musician and seamstress seventeen years his senior, the family lived near the docks and the young piano prodigy helped support the family playing in brothels for drunks and prostitutes. He died wealthy but lived simply, dressing in worn clothes (and famous for not wearing socks) and residing alone in a small apartment surrounded by manuscripts with only a housekeeper and marble bust of Beethoven for company. The sextet begins with a famous rolling viola line that forms the basis of the movement. Despite being in the sunny key of G Major, I’ve always found the best performances have an underlying sadness. The second movement is a dark scherzo that ends explosively in a fit of temper followed by a soulful third movement grounded by a long flowing melody surrounded by shifting sands which gives was to a series of variations. In the last movement we finally get to stretch our legs and run.

Program notes by David Yang