This preview has been provided by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

String Sextet in D major, Op. 10
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold represents the last gasp of Late Romanticism in Vienna. Despite the abandonment of tonality by his contemporaries, Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók, he never veered from this established idiom beyond unexpected chromatic melodies and harmony. Korngold was a true child prodigy – admired by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler no less – whose works were performed in public in Vienna by the time he was 11, although the fact that his father was the music critic of Vienna’s most prestigious newspaper, Neue Freie Presse, may have helped (legendary exchange: “I hear you’re playing Korngold’s Sonata. Is it rewarding?” “No, but his father is!”)

In the early part of the century Korngold was known mainly through his operas (Violanta, Die tote Stadt, Das Wunder der Heliane), but today he is primarily remembered by his pioneering film music. At the urging of the director Max Reinhardt, with whom he had staged Die Fledermaus in Berlin in the 1920s, he came to Hollywood in 1934 where he wholeheartedly embraced the new sound medium. He settled there permanently in 1938 after the Nazis took over his beloved Vienna. He is credited with establishing our subliminal association of specific musical conventions with cinematic effects.

Composed in 1916 and premiered the following year, the Sextet’s unrelenting sweet sound of late German Romanticism is in stark contrast to the mayhem of the raging World War I (particularly the set of Viennese waltzes in the third movement Intermezzo). Its musical language is closer to that of Brahms’s string sextets than to his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, with which it was often programmed. The Sextet combines outright singable tunes with wide, chromatic leaps and complex, irregular rhythms, abrupt changes in tempo, and excursions into unconventional harmonies only to arrive decidedly back in his home key. In this respect, he represents an “advance” beyond Brahms. His work is analogous to that of the Impressionists, who combined realistic figural painting with the blurring of borders and irregular play of light.


String Sextet in B-flat major, Op. 18
Johannes Brahms

According to his own words, Johannes Brahms composed many string quartets in his youth, but destroyed them all. Apparently, he felt more comfortable with larger string ensembles, since some of his earliest works for strings without piano that have survived are the Serenade Op. 16 and the String Sextet Op. 18.

By the late 1850s, Brahms’s professional life was advancing comfortably. He spent most of the year in Hamburg, conducting a women’s choir and teaching. For four months every fall he served as court pianist, chamber musician, and conductor of the court choir in Detmold just north of the Rhineland. His music sold well, making him financially comfortable.

But his personal life was in shambles. He was enamored with Clara Schumann, Robert’s widow, while she had ambivalent feelings swinging between that of a lover and a surrogate mother (She was 14 years older.) At the same time, in 1859, he became secretly engaged to Agathe von Siebold, a beautiful woman with a lovely soprano, but soon broke off the engagement, probably because of Clara’s snit. He never resolved the ambivalence and never married.

The Sextet was premiered by the augmented Joachim Quartet in 1860. Published two years later, it was Brahms’s first published chamber work without piano. At the time, Brahms had discovered Schubert’s chamber music, especially the C major String Quintet with its two cellos, a factor that strongly influenced his prominent use of the cellos.

The lilting first movement is homogeneous in style with little contrast. Brahms spins out the two basic themes of a sonata allegro structure, but these are divided into discrete motivic units that he develops separately as the movement progresses, producing a stream of elegant melodies.

The theme and six variations that comprise the slow movement of the Sextet closely resembles the famous La folia theme, which has bewitched composers since the seventeenth century, from before Arcangelo Corelli to the present day.

The scherzo, a descendent of the Classical minuet and trio, also derives from dance and would normally set up the same repeat pattern as the variations. Such formal repetition would have been musically predictable, even boring, coming after the variations. Brahms recasts the movement by increasing the tempo, changing the meter and the mode from minor to major, and creating irregular rhythm and phrase length.

The fourth movement is a rondo. If there is anything that suggests a composer still under development, it is the inclusion – in a larger sonata structure – of three movements with immediate repeat structures.


Program notes by:

Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn