For Johannes Brahms, writing a string quartet was no casual undertaking.
Brahms was profoundly aware that he was walking in the footsteps of giants—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert to be specific. In an 1869 letter to his publisher, Brahms noted that Mozart had taken “extreme care” with the set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn. Now, Brahms intended to do his “very best to turn out one or two passably decent ones.” As he did when confronting the symphony, Brahms long avoided the string quartet, instead focusing on other forms of chamber music including sextets, piano quartets, and trios. Reportedly, he wrote and discarded at least 20 string quartets before allowing String Quartets No. 1 and 2 (published in 1873 as Op. 51) to enter the world. According to Brahms’ close friend, Max Kalbeck, the composer insisted on hearing the Op. 51 Quartets in a secret, private performance prior to publication.
In String Quartet No. 1, the four voices seem to take on expansive, symphonic proportions. The stormy C minor motif, which opens the first movement, provides the seed out of which the entire piece develops. Rising with restless dotted rhythms, it delivers a sudden, wrenching falling seventh. Variations on this motif emerge in the themes of the movements which follow. This is music infused with an almost frightening sense of classical discipline and motivic unity. Each phrase unfolds into the next with a sense of sublime inevitability. Amid expansive, asymmetrical lines and a sea of competing rhythmic currents, at times our perception of downbeats and meter is obliterated. In the first movement (around 1:20), listen to the way a Beethoven-like “short-short-short-long” motif careens, precariously. In the final bars of the movement’s exposition section, a haunting chorale invokes the spirit of Schubert.
The second movement (Romanze) moves into A-flat major with a quietly majestic, prayerful melody. Open intervals evoke the bucolic sound of horn calls. Turning to shadowy minor, a ghostly recurring “heartbeat” can be heard in the movement’s second theme (1:56). When the original theme returns, it is overflowing with the kind of gracious embellishment and sense of warm gratitude we hear in the slow movements of Beethoven’s late quartets. The final bars drift off into the simple, serene beauty of the pasture.
The third movement hovers restlessly between F minor and C minor. Rather than a scherzo, this music is a brooding, melancholy intermezzo. Following the triple meter of the preceding movements, we experience the more earthbound duple meter of 4/8. The trio section provides a brief respite with a sunny Austrian peasant dance.
Tempestuous C minor returns in the final movement, set in motion by an abbreviated restatement of the first movement’s opening motif. Soon, we are swept into a swiftly flowing sonic torrent. Listen carefully to the passionate musical conversation which grows out of all of this thrillingly dense counterpoint. The coda section rushes headlong into the Quartet’s ferocious final cadence.
Here is a 1990 recording by the Takács Quartet:
II. Romanze (Poco adagio):
III. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo:
It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.
- Brahms: String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.51 No.1, Takács Quartet Amazon