What happens when the harmonic language of Brahms meets a dissolving tonal center? The answer might be Anton Webern’s Quintet for Strings and Piano.
Written in 1907, this is one of Webern’s early works. It’s set in a single movement which lasts just over ten minutes. There are tantalizing echoes of the music of Brahms, who died ten years earlier in 1897. We hear the same expansive voicing and soaring, Romantic phrases. But the tonal relationships that are present in Brahms’ music (the pull of the V chord back “home” to I) have begun to break down in Webern’s Quintet. The result is music which seems to exist somewhere between two distinct worlds.
Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor
In later works, such as Webern’s String Trio, Op. 20 from 1927, that fraying tonal center would vanish, completely. But let’s return to Brahms, a composer often regarded as a “traditionalist.” In a 1933 lecture entitled “Brahms the Progressive,” Arnold Schoenberg argued that Brahms was a great musical innovator in terms of harmonic language and structure.
Ultimately, the music triumphs over all labels and academic insights. Here is Brahms’ heroic Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, performed by the Ebène Quartet and pianist, Nikita Mndoyants: