The Kennedy Center

Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26

About the Work

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

Finished compositions did not come easily for Brahms, and he made numerous attempts to satisfy himself with a chamber piece before he allowed the publication of his Piano Trio, Op. 8 in 1854. (He destroyed at least three earlier efforts in that form.) The following year, he turned to writing quartets for piano, violin, viola and cello, a genre whose only precedents were the two by Mozart and a single specimen by Schumann. Work on the quartets did not go smoothly, however, and he laid one (in C minor, eventually Op. 60) aside for almost twenty years, and tinkered with the other two for the next half-dozen years in Hamburg and at his part-time post as music director for the court Lippe-Detmold, midway between Frankfurt and Hamburg.

Brahms was based principally in Hamburg during those years, usually staying with his parents, but in 1860, when he was 27 years old and eager to find the quiet and privacy to work on his compositions, he rented spacious rooms ("a quite charming flat with a garden," he said) in the suburb of Hamm from one Frau Dr. Elisabeth Rössing, a neighbor of two members of the local women's choir he was then directing. Hamm was to be his home for the next two years, and there he completed the Variations on a Theme of Schumann for Piano Duet (Op. 23), the Handel Variations (Op. 24) and the Piano Quartets in G minor (Op. 25) and A major (Op. 26). Brahms dedicated the A major Quartet to his hospitable landlady.

"The first movement of the Op. 26 Quartet is so lyrical," according to Ivor Keys in his study of Brahms' chamber music, "that there are very few bars without hummable melodic content." The main theme, initiated by the piano alone, provides the two motives from which the movement is largely spun: a gently insistent triplet figuration whose top notes alternate between two adjacent neighboring tones; and a smoothly flowing eighth-note phrase that springs out of a brief pause. The strings join together to echo the piano's phrases, establishing the dichotomy of keyboard balanced against the string group that obtains throughout much of the work. The expressive intensity of the transition, heightened by unison string writing, quiets for the formal second theme, an expansive piano melody grown from the earlier flowing phrase (whose accompaniment is derived from the main subject's triplet figures). A chromatically descending motive and a strain with dotted rhythms (again often accompanied by triplets) provide the exposition's closing material. All of the principal themes figure in the harmonically adventurous development section. The events of the exposition are recounted, with appropriate adjustments as to key, in the recapitulation.

The Adagio is one of Brahms' most luxuriantly beautiful inspirations, an homage in both its transcendent Romantic spirit and specific elements of its technique to his mentor and champion, Robert Schumann, who died in 1856, just before Brahms began sketching this work. An arching melody (incorporating, like the first movement, both duple and triple rhythmic divisions) serves as the principal theme and formal reference point of this chamber-music nocturne, in which two intervening episodes, each introduced by sweeping arpeggios from the piano, provide structural balance and emotional contrast. The third movement is an ample and amiable affair, more gentle in demeanor than the designation Scherzo commonly suggests; the central minor-mode trio is built of sterner stuff. The vigorous finale is a spacious sonata form with a slight Gypsy tint whose abundance of themes Brahms juxtaposed and wove together with consummate mastery of mood and structure.