I am leaving on Monday for Vienna! I’m looking forward to it like a
child. Of course I don’t know how long I
shall stay… The C minor Symphony is not ready; on the other hand a string
quintet (2 cellos) in F minor is finished.
I should like to send it to you and know what you have to say about it. This
letter from Brahms to his friend Dietrich in 1862 on the eve of his departure
to Vienna is
the first inkling we have of this early version of the piano quintet.
During this first
visit to Vienna, Brahms not only helped to copy parts of Die Meistersinger for three concert performances given by its
composer but he also spent many hours studying Schubert’s manuscripts. These
were so unknown and so untouched that Brahms was able to preserve the writing
sand from them in a little box he kept specifically for that purpose. When Brahms returned to Vienna the next year as conductor of the
Singakademie, he had been persuaded by the violinist Joachim to rewrite the
Quintet as a two piano Sonata which he premiered with pianist Tausig at an all
Brahms concert early in 1864.
Schumann, who along with Joachim was Brahms’ most intimate musical
collaborator, had been enthusiastic about the original Quintet and was abruptly
dismissive of the two piano version as merely an arrangement. This forced Brahms to recast the work yet
again into its final familiar form.
Hermann Levi speaking for all of Brahms’ friends wrote the Quintet is beautiful beyond words… you
have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a masterpiece of chamber
music, the like of which we haven’t seen since the year 1828.
The Allegro immediately presents us with the
dramatic contrast of the work, between emotional introspection and explosive
defiance. The sinuous opening idea is
brutally interrupted by its ebullient sequel before returning in a grand unison
statement. The second subject is
melancholy at first and later atmospherically sinister. It is treated at reflective but tender length
in the development section. This
tenderness returns in the coda in the strings alone before being swept aside in
the final accelerando.
The slow movement
begins with all those studies of Schubert’s scores, where an infinitely
extendable one bar refrain is stretched far far beyond Schubert to a great
romantic song. The central section with the piano’s strummed accompanying
chords is more tender, less passionate, but more complex in instrumentation.
The song then returns a trifle wistful now, despite its beauty.
Brahms since his
earliest works had relished the challenge of the Scherzo and he specialised in these comparatively short, intensely
dynamic and virile explosions, often after a deceptively low key start. This
one is driven by an unquenchable rhythmic impulse and a fusillade of hammered
syncopation between piano and strings. The big singing tune of the Trio seems to be in strong contrast but
is in fact a development of the Scherzo
The hectic close of
the Scherzo is then met by the
extraordinary introduction to the Finale,
sonorous and intense, a chromatically ambiguous reminder of the dark side
before the folk-influenced rondo that follows. This opens with a sturdy
Haydnesque cello tune, clearly intended as a relaxed contrast, followed by a
second subject that re-establishes the fevered romanticism of the introduction.
The main theme returns only after a salon-style digression that reminds us of
the B major Piano Trio. The massive and rhythmically unpredictable coda brings
this supremely self-confident work to an impetuous close.