As a journeyman composer, Johannes Brahms (1833-97) wrote twenty exploratory string quartets and used their manuscripts to paper the walls and ceilings of his apartment. “I had only to lie on my back to admire my sonatas and quartets,” he reminisced of his room in Hamburg.
They served as preparatory work for the three string quartets of his maturity. He began the A minor Quartet in earnest in 1866 and finally steered it to completion in 1873. His final, intensive efforts with it are documented in his correspondence with his musical surgeon-friend Theodor Billroth. In July 1873, when Brahms was spending the summer at the Bavarian resort of Tutzing on the Starnberger See, he wrote, in the self-deprecating fashion that was characteristic when he discussed his new compositions:
I am in the act of publishing for the first time—but not writing for the first time—a string quartet. It is not only the affectionate thoughts of you and of your friendship which prevail upon me to dedicate this to you. I just happen to think with of you such pleasure as a violinist and sextet player. A volume of tremendously difficult piano variations you would probably take even more to your heart, and they would certainly do you more justice. But there’s no help for it. You have to accept this dedication as it stands.
He announced its birth to his anxious, ever-patient publisher: “I always take great pains, hoping that I will come up with a great and terrible [work]—and they always turn out small and pitiful! I can’t wait for them to get better!” In fact, he had created a masterwork, a serious, uncompromising piece that everywhere bears his immediately identifiable language, rich in poignant harmonic suspensions, rhythmic displacements, nervous passion, and melting lyricism.
The principal theme of the first movement includes the sequence of notes F-A-E, which are the melody’s second, third, and fourth notes. This was a musical encoding of the personal motto of Brahms’s violinist-friend Joseph Joachim, “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely). Some scholars have suggested that Brahms may have initially intended to dedicate this work to Joachim, whose string quartet played through provisional versions of the piece as Brahms worked on it, and then performed its premiere. A misunderstanding clouded their friendship briefly at that time, which may explain why Brahms inscribed the work instead to Billroth. Brahms’s complementary motto was “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy), and analysts have found its musical translation (F-A-F, or the inversion thereof) woven into the musical texture; but I fear that the ear is not so likely to land on that, and I wonder if Brahms intended that as musical encoding at all, so common are figures based on thirds in music in general.
Listeners who worry that Brahms’s string quartets are severe may take heart in the A major second movement, a supremely beautiful expanse. Its phrases unroll at unhurried length, not wanting to end but rather unfurling into extensions of themselves and then, seamlessly, into the phrases of new themes. The effect is magical. A brief change of character inhabits a central marcato passage in which the first violin and the cello play a strongly accented melody in canon—with emphatic dotted-note rhythms and violently disjunct intervals—after which the spacious calm returns for the movement’s conclusion.
Brahms casts his third movement in terms of the old-fashioned minuet, even if only Quasi minuetto (To some degree a minuet). Here the main “minuet” is ominous, even spectral, and the central Trio section is an animated Allegretto vivace. When the opening material returns, Brahms invests it with an added degree of brainy counterpoint.
The Finale is not less intense than what has come before, but Brahms seasons it, sparingly, with an audience-friendly Magyar flavor. In fact, this movement is every bit as uncompromising and intellectual as anything previous to it in this quartet, filled as it is with complicated rhythmic dissonances and with tight junctures worked out according to strict canonical procedures.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is the longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.
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