July 25, 2023: Brahms, Britten & Poulenc

May 25, 2023

Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, Op. 2

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Years before he cemented his place in history with operas about troubled outsiders (Peter Grimes, Billy Budd) and a War Requiem steeped in pacifist ideals, Benjamin Britten was a prolific composer of instrumental music. As a 19-year-old scholarship student at London’s Royal College of Music, Britten entered a competition organized by Walter Willson Cobbett, a wealthy businessman and amateur violinist who held a keen interest in the fantasy (or phantasy), a genre that flourished in 17th century works for lute, viol, and keyboard. Cobbett’s competition attracted a who’s-who of British talent in the early 20th century, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Britten’s own teachers, John Ireland and Frank Bridge.

Britten himself won the competition in 1932 with his Phantasy Quintet, a lush, post-Edwardian score. On something of a phantasy roll, he followed it with the Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio. Though it failed to clinch the Cobbett prize, it did provide a career boost, thanks to a 1933 BBC radio broadcast featuring Leon Goossens, the top English oboist of the day. The broadcast and a follow-up concert in London drew favorable reviews, and the piece was selected for a performance at the ISCM Festival in Florence in 1934.

Cast in a modified arch form, the single-movement Phantasy Quartet opens and closes with a shadowy march, over which the oboe delivers a series of sinuous melodies. The textures are incisive throughout and there is a delightful interplay between the oboe and strings. Some listeners hear an English “pastoral” folk modality in the closing section, a reminder that the bright young composer just beginning to expand his musical voice.

Sextet in C Major for Piano and Winds, FP 100

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

The year 1932 yielded another distinctive work for mixed chamber ensemble, in Francis Poulenc’s Sextet in C Major for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, and piano. As a member of Les Six — a cadre of irreverent young French composers — Poulenc sought a new direction for French music, drawing inspiration from Parisian cabarets, circuses, and dance halls rather than the more rarefied sound worlds of Debussy and Ravel. Poulenc once recalled that he “frequented the Parisian music hall without stop” during his teens and twenties, preferring modest venues where the beer flowed and entertainers like Maurice Chevalier and Jeanne Bloch sang ballads for a working-class clientele.

Drawing on this background, Poulenc’s Sextet moves with the nonchalant pulse of a Parisian boulevardier, sprinkled with moments of wry nostalgia. The first movement is a jaunty toccata that calls to mind Stravinsky’s Neo-classicism; a lyrical middle section hints at “My Melancholy Baby,” as the melody is passed among the instruments. The second movement opens in a songful vein, driven by the oboe, before a punchier, circus-like theme is introduced. The prestissimo finale is a modified rondo that darts between syncopated dance rhythms and a crooning melody, before coalescing in a vigorous conclusion.

String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

With his String Sextet No. 2, Brahms takes us into the world of his fraught love life. Settling into his summer home in Baden-Baden in 1864, the composer was overcome with nostalgia for a love affair he enjoyed six years earlier with Agathe von Siebold, an intelligent and beautiful soprano whose voice was compared to an Amati violin. The couple had exchanged countless love letters and soon, his and hers engagement rings. The music world was abuzz with chatter about the imminent marriage.

A few weeks later, Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was panned at its Leipzig premiere, prompting the composer to reassess his priorities. He could not face the idea of being an unsuccessful composer — his apparent fate at that moment — and thus pitied by his wife. Chalk it up to insecurity or the oddities of 19th-century marital politics, but Brahms hastily broke off the engagement. Agatha never quite rebounded, and near the end of her life, she wrote a small, sad novel about the Brahms affair.

Whether dogged by guilt or stewing over what might have been, Brahms returned to the affair as he composed his Sextet. The first movement commemorates Agathe by translating her name into music — A-G-A-H-E (with H being the German spelling for B) — at the climax of the exposition. Some listeners have also detected “A-D-E” — German for “adieu” — in the counterpoint. The author and program annotator James Keller writes, “It may be a stretch to accept that Brahms translated an entire sentence into musical notation — ‘Agathe, adieu!’ — but then again, we shouldn’t underestimate our composer.” Keller adds, “There is no question that the G-Major Sextet represented a process of psychological liberation for Brahms.”

The tone of melancholy and nostalgia continues in the nervous scherzo movement, broken only by a playful middle section featuring a ländler rhythm. The third movement is a set of moody variations while the finale moves to sturdy, triple-time dance rhythms. A last dance with Agathe before moving on? It’s impossible to say, but also hard to ignore a wistfulness beneath the music’s upbeat surface.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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