Brahms String Quartet no. 1 in Cm, op. 51 no. 1

performed by the LaSalle Quartet, or below by the Amadeus Quartet

(cover image by Tina Rolf)

On the theme of Brahms delaying the composition of works in the more revered forms, we have his first string quartet, which came after his first piano trio, first piano concerto, both serenades, two piano quartets, two string sextets, piano quintet, first cello sonata, horn trio, and the Requiem. It was something of a long way in coming.

The opus 51 is actually two string quartets, completed in Bavaria in 1873. As with the first symphony, there was mention of a string quartet in Cm as early as 1865, in a letter to Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim, but we can’t be certain that it is the same piece. There was apparently some incarnation of the piece (well, both of them, I think) performed in 1869, but Brahms still didn’t feel they were ready for publication, and four more years passed. It wasn’t until the summer of 1873 that he put whatever finishing touches or final changes on the works and they were ready.

Another parallel to the first symphony (only now in retrospect, of course) is that both of these firsts are in the key of C minor. The two forms (symphony and string quartet), as well as the key of C minor, have strong associations to Beethoven, who as we have discussed, dominated the musical scene for some time. As Beethoven lived and moved in the era when Haydn and Mozart ruled the musical atmosphere, so Brahms had to contend with the influence of Beethoven, but I’d say he also did pretty well for himself.

The work is in four movements, as follows, and has a duration of around half an hour:

  1. Allegro (C minor, ends in C major)
  2. Romanze: Poco adagio (A major)
  3. Allegretto molto moderato e comodo (F minor, ends in F major)
  4. Allegro (C minor)

I’m a sucker for a cycle. Steven Coburn says:

This quartet is so pervaded by the motives of the first movement, that it can be considered cyclic (a multi-movement work that uses recurring passages or themes throughout). The close tonal relationships and integrated key structure of the four movements add to the overall coherence.

Give this marvelous exposition a listen. It’s solid, handsome, but reminds me of why there’s such a ‘formal’ thing as the exposition repeat. I’d give it a few listens, and once you get a few passes at the themes, the development seems like an inevitability. You hear the violin like the very bow of a ship, propelled through the ocean by the churning of the rest of the quartet, a rising figure driving the ensemble forward, and a second theme that’s not so much a relaxation or lessening of tension, but just a different manner of it, a little more anxious or nervous than driving.

Once you hear what makes up these two ideas, you’re just along for the ride, and I could try to analyze the cyclical nature of the work, and what Brahms has done to weave all of his brilliant ideas together, but I’m less than an hour away from 2019, and this post is already a few days late as it is. It’s just brilliant, though, and if you really want all the gory details, Kelly Dean Hansen has you covered.

The development section, for a moment, seems like it’s going to be, against all common sense, where things calm down, but no. Of course not. This is Brahms, and we’re the stormy sea of C minor, but it ends actually relatively placidly.

The ‘romanze’ is in an abbreviated sonata form, two themes without a development section. Do you hear something of the first movement in the dotted figure that’s also present in this first subject? It’s changed moods entirely, like little ripples lapping at the side of your canoe rather than a churning sea, and the second subject, with an incomplete triplet figure (the first of the three notes to the beat missing) leaving a sort of haunting, or at least plaintive, atmosphere. Dr. Richard Rodda says that “The return of the themes in the recapitulation is treated so that the duple and triple divisions are combined, creating a movement which is at once languid and unsettled.”

And what do we have here? An allegretto… another parallel to the first symphony in the absence of a true scherzo. This seems at times like a light movement, but while it doesn’t have the forcefulness of a Romantic-era scherzo, it is shadowy and can be quite serious at times. In fact, it’s longer than either of the movements that bookend it, shorter only than the first movement. What really is the lightest passage in this entire work, no question, is the central trio section, which dispenses with the shadow and whispers and gives this little tucked away corner of the piece, likened to the Austrian Ländler.

But this is a work in C minor, is it not? Yes it is, and Brahms delivers. It’s not a direct return to the opening movement, of course, but do you hear wisps of that opening movement, the same idea that connected the first two movements? Maybe you can’t articulate exactly what sounds similar, but if it’s still on your mental palate, so to speak, it’ll taste and sound familiar.

Don’t think for an instant that Brahms is going to have waited so long to give the world his first string quartet and end with something that’s not heavy-handed. This isn’t Schoenberg’s op. 7, obviously, but we have material that unites the composition overall, as well as an unrelenting intensity that has the kind of musical magic and genius that we would hear from the even-more-mature composer in the symphonies.

The development and recapitulation sections of this work are “conflated,” says Hansen, and this really does feel much heftier than a six-minute movement. It covers a lot of ground without seeming to rush through it in any way. There’s room for long, dramatic pauses, drawn out moments, and the full realization of the tension and what “Walter Niemann found to be filled with ‘iron energy and gloomy defiance,'” as quoted by Rodda.

It’s a little bit like being taken captive by the composer on a journey that by the end lands us close enough to where we started that we can swim to shore. That’s what it feels like, and it’s a great ride.

That’s the end of this article, of that long series of posts with serenades and all the rest, and of 2018 (in 26 minutes). Stay tuned for something entirely different next year/later this week, and thanks so much for reading.

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