Johannes Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor Opus 25
The three piano quartets were conceived together (although the third, C minor quartet was published, with alterations, much later) during a time which was fraught with turmoil for Brahms. He had returned to his native Hamburg after the death of his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann. He conducted a very successful women’s choir but a failed romance with Agathe von Siebold and the complex nature of his relationship with Clara Wieck (Schumann’s widow) surely caused him some emotional distress.
This was also a period of intense study for the young composer. When many of his contemporaries were exploring the possibilities of programme music: romantic notions; myths and patriotic themes, Brahms devoted enormous amounts of time to the study the music of his forbearers and was devoted to the idea of absolute music (music for which no references are stated).
In his music we see a wide range of influences, Bach, Beethoven, the French Baroque! It was the careful study of musical forms, which led him to write pieces of similar instrumentation in pairs, perhaps in an effort to express a fuller range of the possibilities he saw for every ensemble. His string sextets, the serenades, the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures as well as the first two Symphonies were all written in pairs. Despite his keen sensitivity to the ideas of the past, his harmony, his inventive incorporation of the piano into the texture of the music and his use of displaced rhythms were very original and made him one of the most important composers of his era.
The G minor quartet opens with the statement of a simple melodic idea by the three string players and the piano in unison, answered by some gentle chords. This, along with the second, more lyrical and tender theme are developed and expanded in a myriad of ways. In this, Brahms owes much to the music of Beethoven. They both had the ability to manipulate a simple idea brilliantly to create some very memorable melodies, not to mention the countermelodies and harmony to go with them.
The second movement was originally titled a scherzo, but later renamed an intermezzo, a title Brahms reserved for some of his most magical music. Muted strings, a rippling piano part and the use of duple and triple time, so characteristic of the composer, are used to great effect in this movement. A more animated trio follows. The third movement begins with a broad melody which eventually evolves into a curiously martial mid-section, again reminiscent of Beethoven (the Turkish march from the Ninth Symphony comes to mind)! The wild Gypsy, Rondo Zingarese with its three bar rythms, virtuoso parts and a very orchestral ending make for a very lively finale. Brahms biographer Ivor Keys wrote of it, “It was obviously designed to bring the house down, and it did.”