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Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (orch. Schoenberg)

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Steven Isserlis, cello, plays Schumann Feb. 6 - 8, 2014
© Peter Laki

The nineteenth century saw chamber music move out of the "chamber," that is, the private homes for which the Classical repertoire was written, and into the concert hall, which it began to share with solo recitals and symphonic programs. Not only had the technical difficulty of the chamber music parts grown so that amateur musicians could no longer hope to master them; the music itself began to take on symphonic proportions, both in size and in complexity.

This development had started with the middle and late string quartets of Beethoven and the chamber works of Schumann. Brahms, in a characteristic fashion, started in his twenties where his predecessors had left off after years of experience. He wrote a large-scale piano trio (Op. 8) when only 21 (much later, he substantially revised this work, but allowed both versions to circulate, and even the first version is remarkably mature), and was only 28 when he finished the G-minor Piano Quartet, soon to be followed by another piano quartet, in A major. In his excellent Brahms monograph, Malcolm MacDonald called this group of works "symphonic" in their formal ambitions and range of contrast." Of the G-minor quartet in particular, MacDonald said: "In fact the work seems continually to strive beyond its chosen medium, towards an orchestral sense of colour, scope of expression and developmental range."

It was no doubt this symphonic quality that made the G-minor quartet a prime candidate for orchestration, even though its "orchestral" quality did not have to be made explicit in this way. Schoenberg stated his (rather idiosyncratic) reasons for having undertaken the project in a much-quoted letter to Alfred Frankenstein, music critic and program annotator in San Francisco:

1. I like the piece.
2. It is seldom played.
3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

Schoenberg had a very special connection to Brahms, whom he had met in person in the 1890s. His early works had been profoundly influenced by Brahms, whose music he continued to study and analyze all his life. He expressed his views on Brahms in an influential essay "Brahms the Progressive," published in the volume Style and Idea (1950).

According to MacDonald, the first movement of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor

"was the most searching sonata movement Brahms had yet written, counter-posing a ruthless concentration (in the comparatively brief development section) on the one-bar motif that makes up the very first theme, with a reckless expansiveness in the outer sections and an unparalleled reshuffling of the exposition's elements in the recapitulation, even introducing a completely new idea. There is energy and lyricism in plenty, but the movement is never untroubled, continually questioning its own premises; and no comforting answer is found, for the coda, beginning hopefully with sweet tranquillo writing for strings alone, blazes up in a passion only to gutter out quietly in implied frustration."

All the contrast, expansiveness, and reshuffling MacDonald writes about comes into even sharper focus in Schoenberg's orchestration. Where Brahms contrasted the piano with the three string instruments, Schoenberg had myriad different possibilities for contrasting timbres at his disposal. An expansive string melody, written for one violin, acquires quite a different character when played by sixteen. As for the "reshuffling" (meaning that, in the recapitulation, themes don't return exactly in the same form in which they were heard in the exposition), these differences are further accentuated by the orchestration. In his letter to Frankenstein, Schoenberg claimed to have remained strictly in the style of Brahms and to have gone no further than Brahms might have gone had he lived in the 20th century. Yet Schoenberg's score contains some instruments that Brahms had never used (E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, xylophone). Divided strings and orchestral doublings are also implemented in rather original ways. As a result, the sound of the orchestration is, at times, distinctly un-Brahmsian. Schoenberg's contribution is comparable to what Ravel did with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Both arrangements are highly creative interpretations of their originals, revealing what one great composer thought of another's work better than they could ever have expressed in words.

The expansive and contrast-filled first movement is followed by an "Intermezzo." (Brahms had originally called this movement a "scherzo," but it has little in common with his other scherzos. The new name "Intermezzo," used here for the first but certainly not the last time by Brahms, simply means a lyrical movement. Schoenberg, who had started the first movement with a trio of clarinets (small, regular, and bass) now gives the ingratiating first theme to a duo of double reeds: oboe and English horn. The mysterious eighth-note accompaniment is passed from violins to horns to double basses, while the bulk of the melodic activity is in the woodwinds. The tempo becomes more animated in the fluid Trio, which keeps up the motion in equal eighth-notes. After the recapitulation of the intermezzo, the movement ends with an ethereal coda, enhanced in the orchestration by a sophisticated use of divided strings and harmonics.

The third-movement "Andante con moto" is, in the original, a lyrical song with echoes of a military march (in 3/4 time) as its middle section. In the orchestration, the first statement of the song grows to rather massive proportions as both treble and bass are doubled at several octaves. This weighty exposition is only the preparation for even bigger orchestral fireworks in the "military" section, where everything Brahms had only hinted at becomes fully apparent, with a gradual deployment of full brass and percussion. The recapitulation of the lyrical song is another example of how Schoenberg enlarged upon the contrasts inherent in Brahms's original. Marked forte the first time, the melody is played piano at the return. Accordingly, the heavy doublings are gone, the theme is given to a single oboe, and, although another fortissimo outburst is yet to come, the recapitulation is significantly more subdued in character than the exposition was.

The last movement, the celebrated Gypsy rondo, gave Schoenberg a chance to positively "go wild" with the orchestration. He made Brahms's rondo theme even more boisterous by using several special playing techniques in the strings, including an unusually high range for the double basses. Where Brahms had imitated the cimbalom (the Hungarian hammered dulcimer) in his piano part, Schoenberg substitutes a xylophone to irresistible effect. In the first episode, flutes, clarinets, and glockenspiel become the leaders in the game; in the second, the full orchestra briefly turns into a Gypsy band. For that stunning moment when the mood temporarily becomes melancholy, Schoenberg borrowed one of Brahms's masterstrokes from the first movement of the Second Symphony: violas and cellos move in parallel thirds and sixths, but with the cellos on top. Finally, in what was a piano cadenza in the original, Schoenberg has the whole orchestra "play cimbalom" while the clarinets step into the limelight. The final measure of the cadenza, with a wild cascade in cellos and double basses, is particularly memorable. Near the end, the fullest tutti effects are juxtaposed with some of the most sparsely orchestrated moments in the whole piece: in order, once more, to accentuate the contrasts, but also to add to the fun.