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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

Five And Six

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on January 21st 2020. Soloists of the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra. Buy tickets here.

Chamber music in G major and minor, from two titans of western classical music.

Mozart and Brahms are undoubtedly two of the most famous and performed composers of the western classical music repertoire. One of the many reasons that contributes to explain their long-lasting success, is the sheer amount of pieces that they have produced consistently over the years. Indeed, their fame comes not only from the world famous symphonies that they have produced, symphonies that are performed by nearly all professional classical music orchestras in the world, but also for their chamber compositions ranging far beyond the usual duos, trios or quartets that were the most commonly written at the time. Both Mozart and Brahms explored on numerous occasions the possibilities created by the inventive combination of various instruments within the mainframe of a chamber music group, with woodwind, brass, string, and sometimes mixed chamber groups with unusual combinations of instruments. Among their chamber repertoire, lies Mozart and Brahms' respective G minor quintet and G major sextet. For both these pieces, the specific size and instrumentation of the group offers unique possibilities and allows to explore new musical dimensions in a domain slightly less familiar to the ear than the one of string quartets. Listening to these new universes of sound, with their differences and similarities, created by two of the most skilled composers of western music history, highlights how the expressive power of music can sometimes be strengthened by the intimacy of a chamber music group of a specific and optimal size.


  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet in G minor

  • Johannes Brahms: Sextet in G major

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet in G minor.

The Quintet in G minor, K. 516 is the second of two string quintets Mozart completed within a month's time during the spring of 1787. Prior to that year, he had written only example of the genre, nearly 15 years earlier: the Quintet in B flat major, K. 174. Mozart's choice of two violins, two violas, and cello for all of his string quintets is unusual in the Classical era; composers like Boccherini generally opted for the use of viola and two cellos. A precedent for Mozart's choice may be found in a number of light Austrian divertimento-type works, including a Notturno by Michael Haydn, active at the Salzburg court and well-known to Mozart and his family. Mozart entered the G minor Quintet in his thematic catalog on May 16, 1787, on the heels of the Quintet in C major, K. 515. While there is no documentary evidence to explain why Mozart returned to the medium after so many years, there seems to be little doubt that K. 515 and K. 516 were composed as a contrasting pair in a similar manner as the Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41. Indeed, while the C major Quintet may be seen as directly analogous with the "Jupiter" (the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551) in its breadth and elevated Olympian utterances, the G minor may be seen as counterpart to the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. The use of minor modes was comparatively rare during the Classical era, and for Mozart, G minor was perhaps the most deeply personal of all keys, one in which he expressed not only powerful passions but also tragedy. The prevailing combination of melancholy and sometimes violent drama in the G minor Quintet is underlined by Mozart's extraordinarily skillful exploitation of the dark sonorities made possible by the instrumentation.This is particularly evident, for instance, in the vivid contrast drawn between the prevalent somber color and passages that highlight the violin's topmost registers. Efforts to escape to the major mode in the opening Allegro are resolutely denied by the prevailing darkness. As in the C major Quintet, the Menuetto is placed second in the work, though it does little to lift the mood. The Adagio non troppo is a lonely, despairing hymn. Though the finale finally turns to the parallel major key of G, it is not a "happy" major but one that occupies an ambiguous terrain, a characteristic common in Mozart's late works. A year after completing the C major and G minor Quintets, Mozart advertised them for sale, along with his string quintet arrangement of the Serenade in C minor, K. 388.

Johannes Brahms: Sextet in G major

After Brahms' successful first Sextet in B flat Major, published in 1862, the composer embarked on a second in September 1864, which was completed the following May. It was published in 1866, and the first performance followed on February 3, 1867, in Vienna. Quieter and more reflective than the first sextet, the second did not achieve the immediate success enjoyed by its predecessor. It is also notable that during the composition of the Second Sextet, Brahms kept the work to himself. One of the reasons to that attitude toward his work has to do with his personal situation at the time: indeed, Brahms' relationship with Agathe von Siebold, a singer in Göttingen for whom he had composed the Lieder, Op. 14 and Op. 19, had reached a point of such intensity that both she and her friends assumed an engagement was imminent. However, while Brahms intended to continue to see Siebold, he did not wish to "wear fetters,"as he put it in a letter to her. Siebold subsequently broke off the relationship, leaving Brahms despondent. The Sextet, Op. 36, is dedicated to her, and there are many elements through the work that hinting to this link. Three times near the end of the first-movement exposition the first and second violins, together, spell "Agathe" by playing the pitches A-G-A-D-H-E ("H" is the German designation for B natural). After the composition of the Sextet, Brahms noted to a friend, "Here I have freed myself from my last love." The themes of all four movements are related: the first one opens with a rising fifth that proceeds up a half step, only to leap up another fifth. The theme of the Adagio third movement follows the same pattern except that the leaps are fourths separated by a whole step. The tremolo opening of the fourth movement includes leaps of fourths and fifths and movement by whole steps, while these same intervals permeate the ensuing thematic material. Leaps of fourths and fifths are also buried in the accompaniment of the Scherzo, while the Trio theme features the original pattern in the opposite direction. From the beginning, the ambivalent main theme of the Allegro ma non troppo first movement shifts between G major and E flat major, a repeated G - F sharp tremolo in the first viola providing the only tangible anchor in the nebulous first 30 measures. The tremolo permeates the entire development section of the lengthy movement, the coda which presents the main theme fully in G major, without the E flat inflections. Instead of placing a slow movement second, Brahms follows the Allegro with a somewhat gloomy, minor mode Scherzo in 2/4 meter. A jocular central section, shifting to the major and a 3/4 meter, provides a foil to the mood of the Scherzo. The pensive Adagio, a set of five variations with a coda, contains some of the most dense contrapuntal layering of the sextet. The stormy finale is a combination of rondo and sonata forms. The opening six measures reappear several times on different harmonies, dominating the texture of the movement.

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