Brahms String Quintet no. 1 in F, op. 88

performed by Cecil Aronowitz and the Amadeus Quartet, or as below:

You have never before heard such a beautiful work from me.

Brahms, writing of his quintet

(cover image by Freddie Marriage)

Brahms’s first string quintet, with an additional viola, was composed in 1882 in the spa town of Bad Ischl, in Austria. It was first performed on December 29 of that year. The work has a playing time of about 25 minutes and is in three movements, as below:

  1. Allegro non troppo, ma con brio
  2. Grave ed appassionato – Allegretto Vivace – Tempo I – Presto
  3. Allegro energico

In contrast with some of the death-themed works that come before and after this one in the schedule, this piece is ebullient, not wild or capricious, but uninhibitedly sunny and warm. Something I, and probably many listeners, tend to like about Brahms is not only his outstanding craftsmanship and musicality, but a sense of subtle, fragrant melancholy and/or seriousness in his work, like the slight bitterness of a beer that rounds out its other more approachable flavors.

That melancholy or bittersweet nature is less present here; the work shows what I’d consider to be an almost uncharacteristically bright, carefree side, but his seriousness of craft reels in and keeps in check any potential for the work to sound banal.

In fact, this is one of those pieces that, around the time I started familiarizing myself with it, I would find myself humming something or catch a little tune drifting through my brain, and this would be it. It’s friendly in a melodic, easy-to-remember way, but not lacking in substance.

The first movement is in sonata form. It makes use of the home key of F major, but instead of a contrasting theme in the dominant key of C major, we have one in the mediant, or A major, and this “pervasive mediant relationship” shows up throughout the piece. Is that important to know? Not at all. Is it interesting? For sure.

This almost lullaby-like opening sets a tone for this entire work that is warm and welcoming, free from any despair or grimness, but what we shall see, hopefully, is that even in a work with such a jovial disposition can still have a becoming degree of conflict that propels the piece forward. Conflict isn’t always minor-key tension or sparks flying. Just listen to the two themes that make up this movement, at times serenade-like, with pizzicato underpinnings in passages.

The subsequent two movements owe more to baroque influence, but even here, there isn’t the density or seriousness of a Bach fugue, even if there are fugal passages. This second movement contains a “double variation form,” with a sarabande and gavotte that started as a piano work dating from 1854. Here, too, we have the same interval appear, with C#, and the key a third down from it (from the previous movement), A major.

John Keillor actually tells us that everything in the entire work stems from this central movement, but again, is this important? Not really, especially for a piece that has such a wealth of charm. However, it is interesting to see how these baroque ideas come to the fore in a piece that seems to focus heavily on beauty and straightforwardness, or at least that lends itself to be enjoyed that way. This central movement, as Keillor says, can be seen as the scherzo and trio, but has elements of a slow movement, in my opinion, with the grave passages the most somber we’ll hear in this piece.

The finale is in sonata form with oodles of counterpoint. It’s also by a long shot the shortest of the three movements, at about half the length of either of the others. What we might realize here, again as Keillor mentions, is that while there’s a connectedness across movements, there’s a lovely carefreeness to the work in places, and reaches its peak here, where it appears that Brahms is just… having fun, slapping things together, like a chef who is excited to throw seemingly unsuitable elements together and produce something that seems like it shouldn’t work, but does beautifully.

The piece never gets out of hand; Brahms would never go so far, but the result of this humor and playfulness is at the very least quite refreshing, and with greater analysis than I’ve provided, a fascinating combination and exploration of seemingly disparate ideas. For a really serious analysis, there’s always Kelly Dean Hansen.

This is yet another example of how someone like Brahms, a very serious, absolute musician, creates something that has all sorts of musical nuts and bolts that an academic or serious student of music can appreciate, but that is also just… gosh darn charming without the first bit of factual knowledge about the piece. We are reminded of this as the piece reaches its whirlwind, exuberant close.

That’s all we’ll see of Brahms for a few months, I think, but we’ve got some wonderful stuff coming up, including a few series, one of which that’s been in the works for some time, one that is quite last-minute. We also have an enormous milestone at the end of the month, so look out for that. Thank you so much for reading.


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