On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol
to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my
photograph for the purpose. You can use a blue coat, yellow breeches and
top-boats, since you seem to like colour-printing.
These were Brahms’
instructions to his publisher, Simrock, for the printing of the score of the C
minor piano quartet. The man in the blue coat and yellow breeches is the
archetypal Romantic hero, Werther, who shoots himself in the last chapter of
Goethe’s novel because of his anguished and unrequited love for a married
woman, whose husband he admires.
Brahms of course is
talking about his relationship with Clara Schumann. The twenty years spent on
the composition of this work began in Düsseldorf in 1853, when he was acting as
Clara’s knight errant, while Robert was locked up in the sanatorium at Edenich.
We shall never know why they never married after Robert's death in 1856 – it
seems that they were both so proud and independent that they felt their personal
destinies were best worked out apart from each other – but their love never
diminished. Most of Brahms’ music was composed for her, and she and the
violinist Joachim would nearly always be the first people to see his scores.
And though Clara was fourteen years older than Brahms, he survived her by less
than a year, after she died in May 1896.
I speak in my music, wrote Brahms, and
of no work is this truer than this quartet. The key of C minor was for Brahms,
as for Beethoven, the key of intensity, drama and restlessness. The piano opens
with a summons, to which the strings reply with a two-note phrase that speaks
the name Clara, immediately followed by a transposed version of Schumann’s
Clara-theme. This is repeated in B flat minor and the piano guides the music
back to the dominant of C minor, which is tinged with a strange dissonance, a
pizzicato E in the viola and violin. Joachim objected to this vehemently, but
Brahms insisted on keeping it. I
cannot part with the pizzicato E, the continuation will create the effect I
want and allow the E to sound right.
A stormy transition
leads to the richly romantic second subject, which gives rise to a small group
of four variations. The third of these becomes massively vehement, and the last
most ardently longing, leading us inevitably to a variant of the Clara-sigh,
and thence straight into the development. This generates an enormously powerful
theme, fortissimo and marcato, which is a direct offspring of the Clara-sigh
that inevitably reappears after much intemperate raging. Joachim’s pizzicato
also reappears, going in a new harmonic direction at the beginning of the
recapitulation. The second subject is now given a wonderful translucent gloss
until the third variation breaks the place up again. This leads to another
bitter outburst in the coda, making the tranquillity of the final bars all the
There is some
evidence that the scherzo was the finale of the original quartet written in
1856. Certainly it is through composed without a trio. The powerful rhythmic
drive, which grows from the tense opening, is only interrupted by a brief
chant-like second theme. The ending is brutally abrupt.
The andante begins
with one of Brahms' most luxuriant cello melodies, growing into a rapt duet
between the cello and the violin, which becomes a healing song of sorrow. There
is a dolce second subject with a dangerously passionate side to it. The return
of the main theme is in octaves in the piano, wondrously accompanied by
pizzicati in cello and viola, before the cello reclaims his own. The song
returns, bringing peace, a mood which the hushed coda sustains.
The opening of the
finale reminds us of the last movement of the G major Violin Sonata. Its
relentless moto perpetuo quaver accompaniments are soon augmented into a
powerful transition theme leading to a chorale-like second subject in the
strings, with tongue-in-cheek responses from the piano. The transition theme
and the chorale both generate a lot of Romantic fervour in the recapitulation,
especially when the piano gets converted to the chorale theme. The final
cadence is clearly Werther pulling the trigger.