The Kennedy Center

Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

When Brahms ambled into his favorite Viennese café one evening, so the story goes, a friend asked him how he had spent his day. "I was working on my symphony," he said. "In the morning I added an eighth note. In the afternoon I took it out." The anecdote may be apocryphal, but its intent faithfully reflects Brahms' painstaking process of creation, which is seen better perhaps nowhere than in his F minor Piano Quintet.

Brahms began work on the piece in early 1862 as a string quintet with two cellos, the same scoring as Schubert's incomparable C major Quintet, and by August, he had the first three movements ready to send to his friend and mentor Clara Schumann and to the violinist Joseph Joachim. They both responded enthusiastically at first ("I do not know how to start telling you the great delight your Quintet has given me," Clara wrote), but expressed reservations about the piece during the following months. "The details of the work show some proof of overpowering strength," Joachim noted, "but what is lacking, to give me pure pleasure, is, in a word, charm."

By February 1863, the String Quintet had been recast as a Sonata for Two Pianos, which Brahms performed with Karl Tausig at a concert in Vienna on April 17, 1864. The premiere met with little favor. Clara continued to be delighted with the work's musical substance, but thought that "it cannot be called a Sonata. The first time I tried the work I had the feeling that it was an arrangement.... Please, remodel it once more!" One final time, during the summer of 1864, Brahms revised the score, this time as the Quintet for Piano, Two Violins, Viola and Cello, an ensemble suggested to him by the conductor Hermann Levi. "The Quintet is beautiful beyond words," Levi wrote. "You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music."

The opening movement, tempestuous and tragic in mood, is in a tightly packed sonata form. The dramatic main theme is stated immediately in unison by violin, cello and piano, and then repeated with greater force by the entire ensemble. The complementary theme, given above an insistently repeated triplet figuration, is more subdued and lyrical in nature than the previous melody. The closing theme achieves a brighter tonality to offer a brief respite from the movement's pervasive strong emotions. The development section treats the main and second themes, and ushers in the recapitulation on a great wave of sound.

Brahms' Schubertian strain rises closest to the surface in the tender second movement. The outer sections of its three-part form (A-B-A) are based on a gentle, lyrical strain in sweet, close-interval harmonies, while the movement's central portion uses a melody incorporating an octave-leap motive.

The Scherzo is one of Brahms' most electrifying essays. The Scherzo proper contains three motivic elements: a rising theme of vague rhythmic identity; a snapping motive in strict, dotted rhythm; and a march-like strain in full chordal harmony. These three components are juxtaposed throughout the movement, with the dotted-rhythm theme being given special prominence, including a vigorous fugal working-out. The central trio grows from a theme that is a lyrical transformation of the Scherzo's chordal march strain.

The Finale opens with a pensive slow introduction fueled by deeply felt chromatic harmonies, exactly the sort of passage that caused Arnold Schoenberg to label Brahms a "modernist." The body of the movement, in fast tempo, is a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms. Despite the buoyant, Gypsy flavor of the movement's thematic material, the tragic tenor of this great Quintet is maintained until its closing page.