Chamber Music at the Gunn Theater at the Palace of Legion of Honor, Dec 2

Chamber Music at the Gunn Theater at the Palace of Legion of Honor 

Mozart: Quintet in C major for Strings, K.515

Brahms: Sextet No. 2 in G major for Strings, Opus 36 


Mozart: Quintet in C major for Strings, K.515

THE BACKSTORY Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-91) composed six string quintets. The first was an early work, written in 1773, when the precocious composer was seventeen years old and still living in his native Salzburg. The remaining quintets waited until the last half-decade of his life, when he was living in Vienna, bobbing up and down on the winds of fortune: two in the spring of 1787, one in 1788 (more or less; it’s the composer’s own quintet arrangement of an earlier serenade for wind octet), and the final two during the last year of his life. The early quintet is a charming delight, the late ones transcendent in their combination of supreme compositional mastery and an unusually rich-toned ensemble.

The one played here, which Mozart entered into the catalogue of his works on April 19, 1787, is the first of two string quintets he wrote in quick succession just prior to embarking on the composition of his opera Don Giovanni. The second, finished not quite a month later, on May 16, is the highly dramatic Quintet in G minor (K.516), and the composer promptly offered them for sale on subscription, advertising in two newspapers that they were “beautifully and correctly written.” Apparently, there were few takers—perhaps none at all—because Mozart announced in a follow-up advertisement that he was delaying the works’ appearance, and then the following year he sold them as a pair to the Viennese publishing firm of Artaria. These two works stand as yin and yang to each other. If the G minor Quintet, displaying both anguish and affection, seems one of the chamber works in which Mozart most readily reveals the fluctuating depths of his soul, the C major is an altogether more amiable and optimistic work, a summa of the sort of civilized musical discourse we value as a central attribute of the music of the Classical era.

The string quintet was not one of the standard chamber formulations of the eighteenth century. Its principal exponent was Luigi Boccherini—an Italian transplanted to Spain—who wrote about a hundred of them; but in every case his quintets were for the combination of two violins, one viola, and two cellos. In Austria, preference lay with an ensemble of two violins, two violas, and one cello, which is the grouping invariably used by Mozart as well as by his Salzburg friend Michael Haydn (Franz Joseph’s younger brother), who turned out a couple in 1784 and 1786—preceding Mozart’s C major and G minor pair by so little that one wonders if interest in his friend’s quintets may have inspired Mozart directly. Mozart’s attraction to a quintet texture with two violas is entirely consistent with what we know of his personal preference as a performer. Although he was acknowledged as one of the finest keyboard virtuosos of his day, he was also an accomplished string player, having been tutored in the violin by his father, Leopold, whose violin treatise stands as a monument of eighteenth-century pedagogy. Once he moved to Vienna, however, Mozart seems to have preferred playing the deeper-toned viola, at least at chamber music gatherings.

THE MUSIC If the C major Quintet does not display the proto-Romantic tendencies of the G minor, it nonetheless affords no small measure of delight and originality, not only in the masterful melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal manipulation of materials (which we take for granted in Mozart) but also in the insightful deployment of his forces in the presentation and bantering-about of melodies. From the very first measures, with the cello propelling the first phrase of the opening theme—nothing more than a rising arpeggiated triad (i.e. a chord with each note sounded sequentially rather than all at once)—up through a distance of two octaves and a major third, Mozart puts the listener on notice about the ample dimensions he is envisioning in this piece—which happens to be the longest of his chamber works for strings alone.

Countless Classical pieces have a slow second movement and a minuet-and-trio for a third, but in both this and its sister quintet the order is reversed. At least that is how Artaria published them in 1788. A complication arises from the fact that the pages of Mozart’s manuscript are numbered such that the slow movement comes first and the minuet after; but since many scholars doubt that the pagination is in Mozart’s hand, many performers (including those at this concert) choose to rely on the published order, unusual though it is. The placement of this minuet is not its only unusual characteristic; one would also point to a distinctive dynamic technique in which the volume builds through a crescendo only to pull back to piano at the moment when the phrase reaches its climactic cadence. The movement’s Trio section has an individual flavor, too. Whereas one might anticipate a charmed, bucolic interlude, Mozart offers instead some ominous, chromatic writing—and then surprises us by breaking out into a folksy Ländler after all.

The gracious third movement is the slow one—not very slow, at Andantethough its original marking seems to have been Larghetto—and it is a great chamber music expanse for the first viola, which in the course of the movement is in the spotlight fully as much as the first violin. Imagine that it is Mozart playing. In the finale Mozart may be paying homage to his dear friend Franz Joseph Haydn by adopting a sonata-rondo form, a favorite structure in Haydn’s finales—a plan in which the rondo’s alternation of a principal theme with differing episodes is hybridized with the exposition-development-recapitulation layout of the sonata form. Here Mozart fragments his themes (again Haydnesque), and tosses them about in absolutely fluent counterpoint, assigning the first violin some moments of surpassing virtuosity.


Brahms: Sextet No. 2 in G major for Strings, Opus 36

THE BACKSTORY The Second String Sextet of Johannes Brahms (1833-97) ushers us into the not very happy domain of the composer’s love life. He would live and die a bachelor, although there is speculation that his abiding friendship with Clara Schumann, during her husband’s decline into insanity and following his death, may have reached a more intimate level. But it was not she who was on Brahms’s mind when he composed this sextet. While on vacation in Baden-Baden during the summer of 1864, he was overcome with nostalgia connected to a love affair he had enjoyed six years earlier in Göttingen. The girl he had courted then was named Agathe von Siebold, a twenty-three-year-old soprano, daughter of a professor at the University of Göttingen, and a student of musical composition, no less, working under the aegis of Brahms’s old Düsseldorf friend Julius Otto Grimm, who had settled in Göttingen as director of two women’s choirs there.

At the end of the summer, Brahms left Göttingen for Detmold, where he was then living; but the infatuation continued to be expressed through the mails, and Brahms arranged to spend the first week of January in Göttingen with Agathe. The two exchanged engagement rings during that visit, and Johannes had his photograph taken, with the ring proudly displayed on his finger. The bliss would be short-lived. Within weeks, his D minor Piano Concerto received its Leipzig premiere—a total failure—and Brahms re-assessed the state of his life. He had reason to doubt that his talent would ensure him professional stability, let alone the dependable base from which he might support a family. Many years later he reported 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. . . . 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! . . . 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.”

And so Brahms and Agathe parted ways, apparently with Brahms not acting gallantly under the circumstances (even to the extent that his friend Grimm stopped having anything to do with him). Late in life, Agathe wrote a novel based on their love affair, and from this we can surmise something of the desperate unhappiness that surrounded the situation. During his summer vacation in 1864, Brahms was beset with memories of what might have been. He wrote to his former friend Grimm, who responded with the information that in the ensuing five years Agathe’s father had died and, beset with woe, she had moved to Ireland to work as a governess to “get away from the shadowed pages of her life.” Thus learning that there was no chance of his running into Agathe, Brahms hurried off to Göttingen to revisit the site of his earlier dreams. Shortly after returning to Baden-Baden, he set to work on his G major Sextet.

Agathe is literally present in this composition. Brahms noticed that her name translated nicely into musical notation, so long as he replaced the “T” with a “D,” which is phonetically close. (“H,” in German, refers to the note English-speakers call “B.”) At the climax of the first movement’s exposition is a theme consisting of the notes A-G-A-D-H(=B)-E (with the D and H overlapping in harmony). Some also read another line working in counterpoint: A-D-E, with “Ade” being German for “adieu.” It may be a stretch to accept that Brahms managed to translate an entire sentence into musical notation—“Agathe, adieu!”—but, then again, we shouldn’t underestimate our composer. There is no question that the G major Sextet represented a process of psychological liberation for Brahms. To his friend Joseph Gänsbacher he wrote, “By this work I have freed myself of my last love.”

THE MUSIC This sextet tends toward moderation: the tempos of the first two movements are both tempered by the qualifier non troppo (not too much), and the last two by poco (a little bit).  A current of nervous instability runs beneath the usually sunny surface of the opening movement. Sometimes this is born of the murmuring figuration of the inner lines, but the sensation also springs from the general harmonic and rhythmic patterns of the piece, rich in poignantly charged suspensions and harmonic sleights-of-hand. The second movement is also edgy, a curious Scherzo in 2/4 time (as opposed to the triple meter more commonly associated with such a movement); the meter does, however, shift to 3/4 for the galumphing country-dance that serves as the relatively boisterous Trio (marked Presto giocoso). The principal theme of the Scherzo was drawn from an earlier work, a Gavotte in A minor for piano (WoO3, No. 1) that Brahms had penned in the 1850s but never used as a standalone piece.

The Poco Adagio is a set of variations, again derived from earlier material, as Brahms had sent a sketch for this theme to Clara Schumann back in 1855. The variations are approached in free style, yielding a sense of rhapsodic outpouring. The theme is not so much a strongly etched melody as a vague meandering of notes; but its contour bears some similarity to the theme of the first movement’s opening.

The finale is overwhelmingly upbeat and vivacious, though with gentle dance-like passages mixed in along the way—the idea being, some have said, that our composer is enjoying his last dance with Agathe before getting on with his life. But even in this last movement (if not quite to the degree elsewhere in this sextet), Brahms does not allow optimism to unroll unfettered; the piece can seem to subvert to its own sunshine. The musicologist Jan Swafford, in his biography of the composer, rightly refers to “a twilight quality, wistful and high-Brahmsian but still particular to this piece.”—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.