Johannes Brahms completed his Second String Sextet in the summer of 1865 in the surroundings of Lichtental near Baden-Baden, where he had rented a house not far from where the Schumann family lived. The critic Eduard Hanslick praised the sextet for its “gentle modesty”. And there is, indeed, a certain moderation in the music, beginning with the tempi indicated – the constant “non troppo” and “poco”. The gentle cooing of the viola opens the opus and flows throughout the first movement. In the conclusion of the exposition one may discover the intriguing sequence of notes: A-G-A-(t)H-E – the encoded name of Agathe von Siebold, with whom Brahms had been in love as far back as 1858 and whom he was to forget – but apparently did not forget. The nostalgic character is also present in the third movement of the sextet – with the variations on a mournful theme, which once appeared on the pages of letters to Clara Schumann.
The sextet was published in April 1866 – without any dedication whatsoever. Some say that it was first performed on 20 November 1866 in Zurich, when Brahms was enjoying a visit to Switzerland (the composer was well-received there, and he found it easy to work). Others say that the premiere of the Second Sextet took place on 11 October the same year in Boston.
The string sextet Souvenir de Florence was written by Tchaikovsky in the summer of 1890 on his return from Italy where he had been working on The Queen of Spades with tremendous enthusiasm.
The title does not indicate the creation of “local colour”. This memory concerns not so much the city itself as the time that Tchaikovsky spent there and the frame of mind he was in. One of the musical themes of the sextet, at least, was born during the composer’s sojourn in Florence.
The sextet was conceived much earlier, back in 1887, when Tchaikovsky had given a promise to dedicate a new work to the St Petersburg Society of Chamber Music which was headed by Karl Albrecht. The composer resolved to try his hand in this genre, new to him, halfway between chamber and orchestral music. Although he was already at the height of his fame, he approached this new and complicated task as a student. “You see, this is my first experience of expanding beyond the confines of a quartet,” he wrote modestly to Albrecht. Initially organising a private hearing, Tchaikovsky took a further two years to develop the work before giving his agreement for the official premiere and the work’s publication.