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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Piano Quartets by Richard Strauss and Johanness Brahms

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Piano Quartet in C minor, opus 13, by Richard Strauss

A few weeks ago I compared Clarinet Quartets by Mozart and Brahms to show what each reveals about the historicity of music, and how composers can use notes outside the key signature of a given piece to emphasize chromaticism (from χρώμα, color) over diatonicism (διατονική, notes belonging to the prevailing key). Chromaticism abounds in these piano quartets by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. From program notes to Strauss’ Piano Quartet, by Eric Bromberger:

in 1883, at the age of 19, Richard left college and moved to Berlin to study music, and in the process he discovered a new model: Johannes Brahms. Brahms was at this point only 50 years old and at the height of his powers – his Third Symphony had just been premiered, and he was about to begin his Fourth (in fact, Brahms and the young Strauss would meet at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony in October 1885).

Under the new influence of Brahms, the teenaged composer began his Piano Quartet in C minor in the spring of 1884 in Berlin and completed it later that year. This music shows an unusual fusion of musical personalities – the sobriety and grandeur of Brahms are here wed to the fire and impetuous virtuosity of the young Strauss. The Piano Quartet is a big piece (35 minutes), it has a rich, dark sound, and it develops its ideas with a blazing energy.

The quiet opening of the Allegro is deceiving, for the music will quickly explode in a shower of energy, and that sharp contrast may be a key to this sonata-form movement: moments marked con espressione or tranquillo will instantly give way to superheated passages marked molto appassionato or agitato. This opening movement is the most “Brahmsian” in the Quartet, particularly for its dark sonority, its development of small thematic motifs, and its dramatic scope – the movement drives to a close that is virtually symphonic in conception and sound.

The Scherzo, marked Presto, is full of quicksilvery motion and a great deal of energy, especially in the pounding octave drops that recur throughout. A flowing trio section leads to a return of the opening material, and Strauss recalls a bit of the trio section before the movement whips to its Prestissimo close.

After two such powerful movements, the Andante brings a measure of calm. The piano’s lovely opening idea gives way to the viola’s lyric second subject, and Strauss extends these two themes gracefully. The concluding Vivace returns to the mood and manner of the opening movement. Its fiery beginning, full of sharp edges and syncopated rhythms, leads to the cello’s calm second theme (molto con espressione, specifies Strauss), and these two ideas are developed at length – and with a great deal of virtuosity – before the music hammers its way to the conclusion on a firm C-minor chord.

The Piano Quartet in C minor was premiered in Weimar on December 8, 1885, and the following year it won first prize (among 24 entrants) in a piano quartet competition sponsored by the Tonkünstlerverein of Berlin. But this music represents a direction the young composer did not choose to follow. With his Violin Sonata of 1887, Strauss would say goodbye forever to chamber music: ahead of him lay the great tone poems, which wed a slashing orchestral virtuosity with the most vivid pictorial imagination. Chamber music (and the influence of Brahms) were no longer of interest to him, and this Piano Quartet – trailing clouds of Brahms – represents one of the last moments of Strauss’ youthful apprenticeship before he discovered the path to his own musical independence.

Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor opus 60, by Johannes Brahms

And from Russell Steinberg’s website, here are Secrets from the Brahms Opus 60 Piano Quartet:

The great C minor Piano Quartet, op. 60 shows the art of a lion tamer and is easily one of Brahms’ finest achievements. He began the piece while living with Clara Schumann and helping run the Schumann household while Robert was in the mental asylum. Brahms was candid that the brooding quality of the piece was a direct reference to Werther, Goethe’s Romantic hero of unrequited love who eventually commits suicide. To his publisher he wrote, “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. Since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That was the exact description of Werther and 20 years later Brahms was able to joke about his hyper-passionate feelings.

The piece was originally in C# minor, the key used by E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous character, the hypersensitive composer Kreisler (on whom Schumann wrote his famous piano suite Kreisleriana). So it is transparent that Brahms was embroiled working out his growing feelings for Clara amid the tragedy of Robert.

The name of Clara appears immediately in the musical notes, based on Schumann’s own musical motto for Clara—C#-B-A-G#-A, which Brahms in his revisions transposed in C minor to: Eb-D-C-B-C. A discerning ear will hear this motto and variations of it throughout the piece.

But for us this is significant mostly in that it took Brahms 20 years to sort this all out in a piece of such ambitious Beethovenian grandeur. Changing the key of the piece to C minor itself is a Beethovenian move, and the quartet certainly recalls the drama and fate motives of Beethoven’s C minor pieces. The finale deliberately recalls Beethoven’s stormier piano sonatas (op. 2#1 last movement particularly) as well as quotes of the 5th symphony motto. And placing the slow movement after the Scherzo can’t help but recall Beethoven’s similar decision in the 9th symphony.

The two overriding compositional ideas in the quartet are the sigh figure and the octave. The sigh’s two descending notes imbue gloom and expression, while the octave lends a power and drama. Frequently these ideas are bound together. The piece begins with octaves in the piano followed by the sigh figure in the strings. The second phrase begins a full step lower, as if the piece has literally fallen, and thereby creating a sigh figure on a longer structural level between phrases. The opening of the Scherzo is an octave followed by the sigh figure inverted (going upwards). The slow movement descends in an arpeggio down an octave followed by an inverted sigh. With Brahms’ technique of developing variation, it is not an exaggeration to say all four movements are a continual evolution of these two ideas bound tightly together.

Yet a deeper unifying “secret” of the work lies embedded in its harmonic construction. Strange moments seem to subvert the tonality of C minor. For instance, after the opening bars comes a suspended moment where the viola plucks E natural, a note that is as distant from C minor as possible, confusing our ear as to whether we are in C minor or C major. This E natural becomes in the highest sense of the word, an “irritation” that accumulates as the movement develops, until in the recapitulation when a significant passage modulates entirely to E minor. The third movement of the piano quartet itself is in E major.

This subversion of C minor with E is a telltale that there is a bigger harmonic game going on beneath what at first might seem standard classical structure. What Brahms has done is to organize the entire work around an augmented triad—C-E-G#, far more than a traditional minor triad—C Eb-G. The augmented triad is the “key” that unlocks so many of the strange and wonderful harmonic and melodic impulses of the work. Sometimes the sound of the augmented triad is on the musical surface—such as the opening theme of the slow movement G#-E-C-A etc. Most other times, though, the augmented triad is the secret underpinning of larger progressions, such as the areas of the development section in the first movement around a G augmented triad—G-B-Eb.

Whence the hidden augmented triad structure? My hunch is that the augmented triad is the fusion between the original key of the piano quartet—C# minor—and the finalized key—C minor. A C# minor triad is the notes C#-E-G#. A C minor triad is the notes C-Eb-G. A tonic “fusion” of these two would be the augmented triad C-E-G#. Similarly, the “fusion” of the dominant chord would be G-B-D# which is precisely the structure Brahms uses to alternate throughout the quartet.

This may seem overly technical, but there is a poetic idea behind it. C# minor was the key that represented for Brahms the suicidal unrequited lover. C minor was the key of Beethoven that represents heroic struggle. Brahms used the fusion of these two harmonic centers as a device to represent the powerful music drama of this piano quartet.

Comments

  1. Paul S. says:

    thanks for posting this.
    just what I needed.

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