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String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Johannes String Quartet Wed., Oct. 20, 2004, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

As with the First Symphony, colleagues pestered Brahms for years to let them have a string quartet from his pen. In 1865, the violinist and faithful champion of his music Joseph Joachim asked, “Is your String Quartet in C minor finished yet; if so, can you let us have it for a concert on December 18th?” Brahms did not reply. (There is no way to tell if that C minor quartet became Op. 51, No. 1.) Four years later, Clara Schumann reported that Brahms showed her two quartet movements, which may (or may not) have ended up in Op. 51. Later in 1869, the composer's publisher, Fritz Simrock, also pressed him to supply a quartet. Brahms replied, “I am sorry, but I must ask you to be patient. I realize more and more how difficult it is to master virtuoso technique when one is not especially adapted for it.... It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely [‘Haydn'] quartets, so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done.” Though the C minor and A minor Quartets that eventually comprised Op. 51 were well enough formed that Brahms allowed the Florentine Quartet to read through them in the summer of 1869, he continued to hold them back. It was not until a summer holiday in 1873 at Tutzing, south of Munich, that Brahms put these works into their final shape after having had them played several times for him by the Joseph Walter Quartet at the Munich home of the conductor Hermann Levi. In August, he came to terms with Simrock for their publication, and instructed that they be dedicated to his close friend, the physician, amateur violinist and frequent chamber music partner of the composer Dr. Theodor Billroth. Brahms was forty when the Hellmesberger Quartet premiered his String Quartet No. 1 on December 11, 1873 in Vienna — exactly twenty years after Schumann had hailed him as the successor of Beethoven. Brahms' Third Quartet, the Op. 67 in B-flat major, followed a year later. He thereafter never broached the genre again.

Brahms' penchant for weaving seamless sonata forms is exercised in the opening movement of the C minor Quartet. The main theme, built from an agitated, rising, dotted-rhythm motive, is presented immediately by the first violin. Dramatic pauses and an increasing line of tension lead to the second theme, announced by a leaping, repetitive figure in the viola and afterbeats in the violins. The rest of the movement grows from the working-out and formal balancing of these principal thematic materials to create music that Walter Niemann found to be filled with “iron energy and gloomy defiance.”

The Romanze , introspective and lyrical, is one of Brahms' most daring adventures in rhythmic superimposition. The movement is in sonatina form (sonata without a development section), and begins with a tender theme in dotted-rhythm motion. The complementary subject introduces triplet figurations which are often emphasized, in the curious way that a properly placed silence can elicit as strong a response as a sound, by omitting the first note of the pattern. The return of the themes in the recapitulation is treated so that the duple and triple divisions are combined, creating a movement which is at once languid and unsettled.

In place of the expected scherzo, Brahms inserted a movement in the nature of an intermezzo whose central section mimics the style of the popular Austrian Ländler .

The finale returns the tragic mood of the first movement. Its principal subject hints at the themes of both the opening Allegro and the Romanze , and launches a movement that is complex in its formal realization and austere in its emotional milieu.

©2004 Dr. Richard E. Rodda