Decoding the music masterpieces: Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor
Brahms’s piano quartet in G minor was composed for a piano, a violin, a viola and a cello. (Flickr: kkmarals, CC BY 2.0)
Today’s composers would love to discover the elusive formula for artistic permanence. But it was probably always so.
Even German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) did not instantly achieve the honoured status he still holds today.
Just before he turned 30, Brahms, perhaps most famous for his lullaby, relocated from Hamburg to Vienna, then the musical centre of the German-speaking world.
In the 1790s, the 20-something Beethoven had also moved permanently from provincial Germany to Vienna.
Brahms, the emerging composer, was therefore keenly aware of inheriting a heavy mantle from his idols, particularly Beethoven.
This perhaps explains why Brahms delayed publishing either a symphony or string quartet, genres where Beethoven excelled.
Brahms’s early chamber music was mostly written for combinations that also avoid direct comparison with established models and precursors.
This was the case with his Piano Quartet in G minor Opus 25. A quartet is a piece of music composed for a piano and three other instruments. Brahms used the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola and cello.
Brahms made his Viennese debut as composer and performer on piano on November 16, 1862, with this piece.
It was exactly one year after the quartet had its world premiere in Hamburg, featuring the preeminent pianist Clara Schumann.
Since their first meeting a decade prior, Brahms had come to rely upon her artistic guidance, frequently submitting draft compositions for comment.
In the case of the quartet, Schumann gave mixed criticisms.
Secrets in the movements
As well as using four performers and instruments, a quartet is composed of four movements.
Schumann disliked the first movement’s sprawling expansiveness and the unconventional way Brahms handled some musical principles.
The quartet is set in the musical key of G minor, and this is where it starts in the first movement, which is a sonata.
Sonatas were the favoured form for a lot of music from the 18th to mid-19th century, and were generally structured around three parts.
Sonatas change between musical keys to develop contrasting sounds and create tension.
In Schumann’s view though, Brahms’s shifts in key were unbalanced.
However, she strongly approved of the second movement of the quartet, which you can hear in the clip below.
Brahms initially called it a “scherzo”, but because of its comparatively moderate tempo, Schumann suggested it be renamed an “intermezzo”. (Both of these titles simply refer to the speed, range and mood of the movement.)
Brahms did so, and thereafter would frequently use this genre title in his large output of short piano solo compositions.
Two other aspects of the quartet’s second movement would have also pleased Schumann.
She was known to enjoy “pedal point” technique, whereby a single note is sustained in one part alongside changing harmonies in the other instruments.
Here, the cello plays middle C more than 50 times while the other strings move around with great melodic freedom.
The opening melody in C minor by the violin and viola is undoubtedly a direct personal reference to Schumann.
Borrowing a device from her beloved but recently deceased husband Robert, Brahms spells her first name within the melody.
In its original form and key, the musical notes C and A are retained, with B and G substituted for the letters L and R in her name respectively: (C-B-A-G-A).
Since Brahms had chosen to place the quicker inner movement second, his third movement needed to be more melodic and sonorous.
Here the strings shine with long-breathed phrases, supported by a wide ranging piano part in the bass register.
As the tension builds within this slow movement, a taut march-like rhythm emerges, which eventually builds into a massive climax.
It is not too far-fetched to suggest that Brahms is here emulating Beethoven.
For example, there is a close similarity with the triumphant fanfares that erupt at several points in the slow movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.
Despite these numerous highlights, it was the work’s finale that ensured its instant success and early acceptance into the canon of western classical music.
Drawing on his early experience of concert tours with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, Brahms designated this movement as a “Rondo alla Zingarese”, that is “in the gypsy style” as then commonly understood in the Austro-Hungarian states.
Austrian composer Joseph Haydn had famously also composed a “gyspy finale” for his piano trio, so Brahms was not without precedent here.
His setting is however closer to contemporary styles.
Brahms’s pervasive use of strumming effects, for instance, represents the cimbalon, the popular percussive string instrument used by bands playing music from eastern Europe.
Another quirky feature of the quartet’s finale is the frequent use of phrases of music made up of three bars (the basic building blocks of a musical composition).
This rather undermines one’s expectation of the symmetrical balance that a classical work demonstrates.
The rondo structure, whereby the opening section returns regularly but interspersed with contrasting passages, however, ensures that Brahms’s catchy tune is instantly memorable.
Innovation and appeal
Viennese audiences were naturally captivated by this quartet thanks to its finale. Its other qualities were also widely recognised by his musical colleagues.
Brahms’s lifelong friend the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, who had recently composed a concerto “in the Hungarian manner”, claimed Brahms had beat him “on his own turf”.
Brahms’s younger Viennese contemporary Arnold Schoenberg was also impressed.
He recognised the quartet’s remarkable qualities such as the “perpetual variation” approach, whereby the large first movement emerges from a simple one-bar idea.
Schoenberg later also arranged the quartet for full orchestra.
A combination of artistic innovation with popular appeal gave Brahms his first major public success.
Brahms and Clara Schumann remained close friends and artistic colleagues for the rest of their lives.
When she died in 1896 he was grief stricken and outlived her by only a year. Brahms continued to compose in all major genres, other than opera.
For many music lovers his major legacy is his large chamber music output, which features across his entire career.
Though Clara was also a gifted composer, after her husband’s death she devoted herself to performing and teaching.
In Australia, Brahms’s music was slow to be adopted, but this piano quartet was the first to gain currency here.
More than 150 years after its premiere, Australians are still finding it an inspirational piece of chamber music.
Sydney’s Ironwood ensemble including pianist Neal Peres Da Costa recently recorded the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet for ABC Classics, to critical acclaim.
Of particular interest is their use of a modern replica Streicher piano.
Brahms received one of these instruments from its Viennese manufacturer soon after settling there, so it is an ideal vehicle for this repertoire. Brahms and his G Minor Piano Quartet are here to stay.
Peter Roennfeld is a Professor of Music at Griffith University.
Originally published in The Conversation