MENDELSSOHN + BRAHMS
SATURdAY, DECEMBER 12 AT 8 P.M., ZIPPER HALL
FELIX MENDELSSOHN String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80
JOHANNES BRAHMS Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn were siblings who enjoyed a close relationship for their entire lives. Fanny was the eldest of all the Mendelssohn children, older than Felix by four years. Both showed enormous musical talent at an early age, but Fanny’sambitions to compose and perform publicly were frustrated by the expectations placed on women of her class.Responsibilities to home and familyleft no room for a career in music. Fanny continued to compose and play, but mostly among friends. Herwisdom in musical matters was unfailingly at Felix’s disposal,however,and the two conspired on a few occasions to publish some of her works under his name.In the middle of 1847, when Fanny was just forty-one years old, she suffered a stroke. Her subsequent death was especially upsetting for Felix, who lost not just a close family member, but an artistic advisor and confidant. Fittingly, he honored hissister through music, composing the four-movement String Quartet No. 6 in F minor. He called it “Requiem for Fanny.” In theimpassioned opening, every fleeting moment of peace is broken by a troubled mood. The second movement is a taut and exciting scherzo that ends quietly, perhaps even uncertainly, while the third movement Adagio is heartfelt and full of yearning. The finale continues what we may interpret as a symbolic exploration of Mendelssohn’s grief, in all of its anger and pain. Mendelssohn achieves something profound here, wresting beauty from anguish. The String Quartet premiered privately in early October of 1847 and publicly a month later. This was one of the last works Felix Mendelssohn would complete. He died in early November 1847, just months after his beloved sister.Johannes Brahms traveled to Vienna from his hometown of Hamburg in late 1862, finding a friendly and vibrant community of musicians and composers. Although he still had ties to Hamburg,heeventually made Viennahis home base when he wasn’t traveling on concert tours. The move provided a fresh start for Brahms, which had benefits for both his professional and his personal life.Brahms began composingtheString Sextet No. 2 in the fall of 1864, completing it the following spring. He had previously written for this ensemble of two violins, two violas, and two cellos about five years earlier. In the intervening years, however, Brahms had undertaken some intense projects including his first Piano Concerto, two orchestral serenades,most of the German Requiem, and numerous other chamber works. All of this work helped Brahms grow as a composer, and his development is evident if one compares the two Sextets: No. 1 is instantly enjoyable and sweet,whileNo. 2 shows a brooding complexityand the emergence of a more mature sound. Personally, Sextet No. 2 may have also provided a way for Brahms to grieve and process the end of his relationship with soprano, Agathe von Siebold. Some scholars posit that Brahms fashioned one of the first-movement themes using notes corresponding to letters in her name. The opening movement features a pair of ascending fifths in the first violin over a murmuring figure in the first viola; these two elements provide much of the raw material explored by the sextet throughout the movement. It is in the charming second theme where Brahms may have covertly evoked the name “Agathe.” The second movement is a scherzo with a passionate triple-meter trio section. Brahms explores variation and counterpoint in movement three, while the final movement proceeds with a bright energy. Sextet No. 2 reveals a composer whose priorities are well-crafted harmony and beautiful melody, albeit tinged with moments of melancholy.
–Christine Lee Gengaro, Ph.D.