Johannes Brahms completed his String Sextet in B flat Major No. 1, Op. 18, in 1860. It is in four movements and slightly less than 40 minutes in duration. The composer was still in his twenties when he wrote this work, and while it clearly bears his artistic stamp, it also betrays the strength of his early influences, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Early works such as these make it sometimes difficult to determine the true direction of Brahms' musical vision except that he loved the music that had been coming out of Vienna for the last hundred years. However, it is also true that the full Romantic writing of the generation directly preceding his own, that of Schumann, who discovered and promoted him, is absent in Brahms' compositions. This first sextet reveals an especially acute understanding of Schubert's later writing. There is as much Classical order in this sextet as there are Romantic leanings. The use of a string sextet as an ensemble was comparatively new. Spohr provided the only notable precedent. Brahms is also partial to certain Baroque conventions, such as the fugato in the Andante second movement.
The first String Sextet was written in the summertime, while Brahms was vacationing on the banks of the Elbe. Its ineluctable, Viennese strains seem to come through in spite of his pride in being a tough kid from Hamburg. The sweetness of Vienna's indigenous sound comes through in this work, which is perhaps why it keeps reconfiguring its textures, resisting the urge to bathe in the loveliness of the city's soundscape, which can reduce itself to alkaline desolation in a matter of moments. That was the bizarre danger about Vienna that this sextet works with; it is a city that loves music, especially its waltzes and its famous composers. Becoming part of that scene can easily reduce a musician to an imitator, making it undesirable, yet it is ironically a mecca for composers. While Wagner and Schumann broke with its expectations, Brahms worked with them, loved the city's paradox, and never allowed musical sleaze to get the upper hand. His music is so eventful because he does not want to be pinned onto a dance floor laden with waltzing Viennese locals. It is a strange risk to take but it resulted in wonderfully enduring music.