The Kennedy Center

Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Richard Freed

Chamber music is something we do not readily associate with Richard Strauss, and indeed he composed very little of it. Very little, in fact, in what we might call "generic" forms--symphony, sonata, quartet, etc.--for, as he declared more than once, he found it virtually impossible to compose music without some kind of story to tell. And he liked to tell those stories in the richest of instrumental and vocal colors. He was only 24 when he composed Don Juan, the first of his great tone poems, and he never looked back, except now and then to recycle a theme or two he particularly liked. By the time his cycle of works in that genre was completed, he had established himself as an outstanding master of music for the lyric stage, with works as different from one another as Der Rosenkavalier, Salome and Arabella.

But in his teens Strauss did try his hand at symphonies, concertos and chamber music. Two piano trios, a string quartet and a very substantial cello sonata preceded the Piano Quartet, which he completed in 1884, at just about the time he reached the age of 20. His contemporaneous Symphony in F minor (his Second) was promptly given its premiere in New York under the famous conductor Theodore Thomas, who had got the score from his father's friend Franz Strauss, the celebrated Munich horn player who was the father of the young composer. (Thomas, the "father of American orchestras," subsequently founded the Chicago Symphony, with which he gave the American premieres of several of Strauss's tone poems only weeks after the respective German premieres.) Neither of the two symphonies turns up in our concert halls now, and the Piano Quartet too has been relegated to the category of "novelties," but it enjoyed quite a strong reception in its day.

Hans von Bülow, one of the most admired pianists and conductors of his time, was conductor of the famous Meiningen Orchestra in the 1880s. After an initial skepticism, he became the young Strauss's most enthusiastic supporter, and launched him on his own distinguished conducting career. Bülow arranged for the premiere of the Piano Quartet to be given at the Meiningen court in 1886. The work was published at once, and took first prize in the chamber music competition of the Tonkünstler-Verein in Berlin.

Once Strauss became directly associated with Bülow and his circle, with their strong allegiance to the "music of the future" as defined by Wagner and Liszt, his instinct for the dramatic rose to the surface; the 19-year-old who composed the Piano Quartet, however, was stillvery much under the influence of Brahms (whom Bülow supported with still greater enthusiasm). The very idea of a piano quartet, after all, is Brahmsian, as are the structure and design of this work. But more than a few elements--in the shape of thethemes, in the sometimes surprising rhythmic turns, and the overall impulsiveness that will not be contained--all point to the true character of the mature Strauss, already sketching a sort of vague scenario, if not actually delineating dramatic scenes.

The Quartet is laid out in four amply proportioned movements. The opening Allegro is the most expansive and the farthest-ranging in terms of mood: one may sense a spirit of rebelliousness against the rigors of the very form the composer has chosen, and his stretching for colors not generally thought to be within the capacities of such modest instrumental forces. The Andante is as expressive an instrumental movement as we might expect from the great composer of songs Strauss proved to be, and the extended scherzo does clearly signal the eventual arrival of Till Eulenspiegel ten years in the future. The final movement is filled with a different kind of vitality and symbolism, coming to rest, after a stunning little fugato that is more intimate than showy, in a confident gesture that seems to declare the completion of Strauss's survey of chamber music's possibilities for his expressive purposes.