The Festival in Residence: Windsor Program Notes

The present quartet is the last in a set of three that Beethoven composed for Count Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the height of his so-called “heroic,” or middle period.  It is a lively and dynamic work that is definitely heroic in the boldness of its themes.  The first movement begins with a slow introduction consisting of a mysterious sequence of chords that do not define any particular tonality and do not arrive at the home key of C major until the very end.  (It was evidently influenced by the famous opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet [K. 465], also in C major.)  Even the Allegro vivace gets off to a somewhat tentative start, with an unaccompanied flourish for the first violin, punctuated by brief chords in the other instruments.  Despite the obvious allusions to Mozart, there is a fierce intensity here that we never find in earlier music.  The principal generating idea of the movement is to make amorphous material gradually more organized.  By the development section, the loose textures of the exposition are solidified into a strict canon based on a two-note pattern.  The violin flourish that serves as the movement’s first theme is lavishly ornamented when it returns to announce the recapitulation.

The second movement, Andante con moto quasi Allegretto, has “an aura of remote, almost mythical melancholy and remoteness,” in the words of musicologist William Kinderman. Unlike the first two ‟Razumovsky” quartets, the C major does not contain an original Russian melody, identified as such in the score.  Yet, in a 2014 study, musicologist Mark Ferraguto traced the theme of this Andante to a Russian song published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, which Beethoven read regularly.  But Beethoven did not quote the tune in its original form and only used a characteristic melodic turn from it, making the melody even more exotic by adding an augmented second that was not present in the original.  This mysterious first theme is followed by a second idea, which evokes a graceful dance.  A haunting new melody is heard at the end of the movement, in a coda that seems to vanish in a Romantic mist.

The graceful third movement minuet is a nostalgic evocation of the past.   The choice of a minuet is significant, for by 1806 Beethoven was much more likely to write fast-paced, surprise-filled scherzos in both chamber and symphonic music.  In the trio section Beethoven strikes a more modern note, with some characteristic offbeat accents (a device he was particularly fond of) and an unusually high first violin part.  The recapitulation of the minuet is followed by an extensive coda, introducing a sad, minor key variation of the minuet theme that leads directly into the last movement—a perpetual motion that begins as a fugue, its lengthy subject introduced by the viola.  By the time all four instruments have entered, fugal counterpoint gives way to chordal writing; the two kinds of texture alternate throughout the movement.  The extremely fast tempo generates a high level of excitement that culminates in the surprise rest just before the end, after which the mad rush continues with even more fire than before.  © 2023 Peter Laki

The two sextets for two violins, two violas, and two cellos are Brahms’s earliest chamber works without piano, preceding the string quartets and quintets by many years.  They reveal a composer full of youthful energy yet possessed of an emotional maturity well beyond his years.  

Brahms in his mid-twenties did not feel quite ready to write a string quartet.  In that genre, Beethoven’s legacy seemed particularly oppressive.  Although the performing forces are larger, a string sextet actually presented a lesser challenge.  First of all, sextets did not have such a daunting history (in fact, they hardly had any history at all), and second, chamber ensembles of six or more players (not necessarily all strings) had previously been associated with lighter, serenade-type music.  Brahms, who had composed two orchestral serenades in the late 1850s, adapted their genial atmosphere to the chamber music medium in his first sextet, premiered in Hannover by Joseph Joachim and five of his colleagues on October 20, 1860.

Joachim was not only one of the greatest violinists of his time, he was also a composer in his own right.  During their long friendship, Brahms often asked Joachim for his opinion in compositional matters.  In the case of the first sextet, Joachim felt that the opening theme of the first movement needed to be stated twice, lest the subsequent modulations begin too soon.  Brahms heeded the advice, and added ten measures at the beginning of the work.  The first cello thus received the honor of announcing the lyrical theme, before it is taken over by the first violin.  The character of this tender and romantic movement is best defined by the performance instructions espressivo, tranquillo, and dolce, found frequently in the score.  (A recent study shows that in making these suggestions, Joachim was inspired by Beethoven’s String Quintet Op. 29, performed at our last concert.)

The second movement, a theme and variations, contains some unmistakable echoes of Bach’s famous Chaconne from the D minor partita for unaccompanied violin (a piece that Brahms later arranged for piano left hand).  The D minor melody, like many Baroque variation themes, is dominated by a descending harmonic progression, but Brahms enriched it with some characteristic modal (that is, neither major nor minor) inflections.  There are five variations, of which the first three grow gradually more and more impassioned.  In variations IV and V, the key changes to D major, and the music evolves from gentle lyricism to a moment of supreme magic.  The theme then reappears in its original form but in a much more subdued instrumentation.

The third movement is a brief scherzo in the Beethovenian mold, with allusions to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.  The main section, already quite fast, frames a Trio that is even more animated.  Some of the trio’s thematic material returns, à la Beethoven, as the movement’s coda.

The last movement’s graceful theme is passed from the first cello to the first violin, as in the opening movement.  The light serenade tone prevails throughout, except for a brief moment where the music becomes more agitated.  Each time the main theme returns, its instrumentation changes.  The work ends with a spirited coda, getting faster and faster to the end.  © 2023 Peter Laki