Brahms' First String Quartet

For more than ten years, I have been writing program notes for chamber music concerts. I will begin to share these, with a link to a video of a performance of the works. At some point I might have enough notes for a little book. Audiences and musicians have been amused and informed by my notes, so I hope to pass along the pleasure.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51 No. 1 (1865-1873)
I. Allegro
II. Romanze: Poco Adagio
III. Allegretto
IV. Allegro
Happy was the lot of Louis Spohr, a composer who outlived Beethoven and composed 36 string quartets. Far less happy was the lot of composers who trembled under Beethoven’s shadow: Mendelssohn did a youthful quartet fully in the “manner” of the master’s intimidating last works, but then abandoned that high and difficult style for a more genial output; Schumann created three masterful quartets in 1840, and then no more; Schubert capped his quartet career with masterpieces worthy of his musical hero, but he was dead two years after Beethoven. Other composers shied away from the genre, and some, like young Dvorak, were just beginning to find their way.
By 1865, Brahms, the most self-conscious of all composers, had composed and torn up twenty quartet attempts. Some were played privately by friends: all were rejected and nearly-all destroyed. This one he kept, and revised, and revised, and revised. By 1873, Brahms had two quartets ready, his Opus 51, the first of which, in the high-stakes key of C Minor, we hear tonight. Brahms was 40 when he published these quartets, and he had still not completed his first symphony, another case of predecessor-panic.
The first movement is a tight-fisted sonata form, with not one note wasted. The two principal themes follow one right upon another. The first theme, although it surges upwards heroically, also has three successive downward leaps, making its return and contrapuntal use easy for any listener to recognize. The second theme, heard immediately after two long-held octave notes on the viola, is more songful, melismatic, chromatic, exactly the kind of theme we will find in his symphonies. The working-out includes sections in sunnier C Major, and then a slide into mysterious C-Sharp Minor. These modulations change the harmonic palette even while Brahms continues his tightly-worked counterplay of themes. One masterful touch in the first movement is that Brahms brings back his second subject, set one pitch higher than the “home key,” so that, although one is hearing a recapitulation of a now-familiar theme, is distinctly different in tone-color (you will hear this after about three bars of distinctly weird pizzicati). The coda is more agitated and shows us that Brahms knows the full weight of writing his first quartet in the “tragic” key of C Minor, although he imitates Bach in having the last note be a broad chord in C Major.
Like Beethoven, whose C Minor “Pathetique” sonata opens out into a melting song in A-Flat, Brahms choose this key for his second movement. This “Romanze” is intimate music, and although the thematic material is based on the main theme of the first movement, this music takes us to a different world altogether. The players are more together than pitted against one another, and we sense a pastoral mood, with suggestions of distant horn-calls. A more meditative middle section, sliding into the minor, hints not just at nature, but nature seen in solitude, but then we are brought back to the “song without words” material from the opening. If the first movement is about nervous nest-building, the second is a celebration of the natural world.
There is no Scherzo for a third movement, as you might expect from a 40-year-old composer still too timid to write his first symphony. Instead we have a moody Allegretto molto moderato e comodo. The key is F Minor (the relative minor of the A-Flat Major key of the preceding movement). The interplay between the violin and the other strings is not so much playful as sinister, and the folkish interlude with odd open-string sounds from the second violin and viola (an effect he had picked up from Haydn’s “Frog” quartet). In mood, I find this one of the loneliest pieces of music in the repertory – not so much a depiction of a lonely character, as music that springs from a solitary nature. If one had to paint this delicate music, I would envision a walk in a November wood, with gray and brown tones predominating. Perhaps, in the middle section, our solitary stroller sees some geese flying overhead, or some ducks nestled along a distant stream. Then, turning his back, he knows he is alone again, and the opening music returns.
In the busy and exciting Finale, Herr Docktor Brahms employs a technique that he would perfect in his symphonies: a short “motto” theme followed by two principal themes. By the time Brahms exposes and unfurls these handsome melodies, full of energy, there is scant time for a big development section, so there is a highly compressed one, followed by the recapitulation of the three ideas, and then a coda. This finale, based on material from the first movement, forms a solid bookend against the assertive first movement.
Brahms is given credit, in his Opus 51 quartets, with re-establishing the genre and encouraging others to go where, previously, only a few hardy souls had tread. We would probably not have the Bartok or Shostakovich quartets, had Brahms not summoned the courage to issue these works. Quartets love to play the Brahms quartets. For listeners with time and intent, it is a revelation to listen to them with score in hand. For the concert hall listener, the rewards may be mixed, as there is a difference, perhaps, between “quartet music” and “music for quartet.” Brahms himself may have sensed that the architecture of absolute music was too complex or dense for the quartet, so he almost immediately made a version of the music for piano four-hands. The outer movements may be daunting, but in the two inner movements, the lyrical gifts and nature-painting instincts of Brahms come to the fore. Or it may simply be that repeated listenings are called for to make the outer movements reveal themselves. Either way, we are grateful to have a time and space to sit quietly, and make it our business to absorb this great work.


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