Johannes Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor Opus 60
The Brahms C minor quartet, although it was published in 1875, much later than his Opus 25 and 26, was actually begun several years earlier in about 1855. Most scholars agree that the first and third movements have their origin in a C sharp minor quartet that he put aside after disappointing rehearsals in 1856. In 1874 he returned to it, revising it, changing the key, adding a scherzo and writing a new finale.
The piece was conceived during a very trying time for the composer. His good friend and mentor Robert Schumann had become severely mentally ill and died tragically of the effects of syphillis in an asylum in 1856. The young, perhaps idealistic, Brahms was in love with his friend's widow, Clara Wieck Schumann, a brilliant musician/composer in her own right and Brahms's intellectual and musical soul mate. The nature of their relationship has been the subject of much speculation. What is certain, is that the two remained very close until her death in 1896.
Brahms's frustration at the impossibility of their love almost certainly tempered the mood of this quartet. In a letter to his publisher, years later, at the time of its publication, Brahms himself drew a parallel between the music and the story of Werther, a young man who takes his own life because of his unrequited love for an older, married woman.
The first movement of this quartet is extremely dramatic. It runs the gamut of emotions of the Werther/Brahms character from vehemence to despair. The two themes are combined in an expanded concept of sonata form. The second theme is developped in 5 variations and the recapitulation is set, unusually, in the dominant key of G major rather than returning to the home key of C minor. It ends quietly with no sense of resolution.
The second movement, a scherzo, is vigorous, angry and intense. It is unusual in the fact that it lacks a trio section. The third movement opens with a beautiful, sorrowful cello solo which evolves into a duo with the piano. The other two instruments are added and a second theme is introduced. Again adhering to sonata form, Brahms brings back his opening theme to end this movement softly with special poignancy. The finale is once again full of fury and hurt. Descending figures in the piano and later in the strings recall the cello theme from the previous Andante. Running piano figurations are sustained for most of the movement, supporting the first melody and the second, chorale-like theme.
At the time this work was published, Brahms had completed two string quartets. The piano writing here lays the foundation for his great Piano Concerto No. 2. The inspiration behind this quartet may harken back to his earlier years, but this is clearly the work of a more mature composer.