Program Notes

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60 (1855-75)

Notes for: August 5, 2008

The C Minor Piano Quartet was perhaps the most painfully autobiographical of Brahms’s instrumental works. Although completed in 1875, its roots went back 20 years to the most stressful period of his life – namely, his ill-fated love affair with Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert Schumann. Brahms himself pointed out the impact of that traumatic experience on this quartet, and a summary of the affair will set the stage.

Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in September, 1853, when, at the suggestion of mutual friends, he knocked on their door in Düsseldorf. At the time, Robert, 43, was a prominent composer, conductor and music journalist, and Clara, 34, was a leading concert pianist. Brahms, only 20, was still a struggling young composer. Brahms played his music for the Schumanns, and they were deeply impressed. Clara added Brahms’s piano works to her concert programs, and Schumann, in a widely read article, proclaimed that here at last was the heir to Beethoven.

Brahms became a frequent visitor and intimate family friend of the Schumanns, and witnessed Robert’s growing mental illness. Then, in February, 1854, Brahms read in a newspaper that Schumann had attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He hurried to Düsseldorf to help Clara and her six children in any way he could, and he became virtually a full-time guest in the Schumann home. In March, Robert was institutionalized. His doctors prohibited Clara from visiting him on the grounds that he would be upset by such visits, and Brahms became the primary contact between husband and wife. Then in the autumn, Clara embarked on an extensive concert tour to support her family, pay Robert’s medical bills, and continue bringing Robert’s works to the public. In effect, she left her household in Brahms’s care; he took over some of Clara’s teaching, helped the servants look after the children, and took charge of the family’s financial affairs – rent, servants’ wages, school fees, even investments.

While deeply distressed by Robert’s declining health, Brahms’s devotion to Clara soon turned to love. With complete candor, he expressed his feelings in letters to Clara while she was on tour or on his rare absences from Düsseldorf. Did Clara reciprocate? Since Brahms subsequently destroyed all her responses, we cannot be sure, but the entries in her diary suggest that she found him exciting and attractive and his attentions flattering. There is no evidence, however, that the affair was ever consummated physically.

Schumann died in the asylum in July, 1856. During the following year, Brahms again expressed his love to Clara, but one or both parties apparently decided against marriage. We can only speculate on the possible reasons: the 14-year difference in their ages; Clara’s six children; her reputation as a concert pianist while he was still making his mark as a composer; his inhibitions – despite other affairs, he never did marry. Brahms’s ardor cooled, but Clara and he remained close friends until her death 40 years later, and Clara was always among the first to hear and to criticize Brahms’s compositions.

In the winter of 1855-56 – at the height of his affair with Clara and his anxiety over Robert’s health – Brahms wrote a piano quartet in C sharp minor. It was performed privately with friends, but Brahms was dissatisfied. His customary practice when dissatisfied with a composition was to destroy the manuscript. In this case, he set the work aside, suggesting that it had a special meaning for him and that he planned to return to it.

And there matters rested until the winter of 1873-74 when Brahms took the quartet from the shelf and began a process of revision and reorganization that lasted until the summer of 1875. He throughly revised the first movement, dropping the key a half-step from C sharp minor to C minor; composed new slow and final movements; and added a scherzo, using material from the finale of the original. The revised quartet was then given its first performance in Vienna the following November.

But Brahms was still not ready to sign off. When he played the revised quartet for Clara, she was impressed by the last three movements but was critical of the first. Brahms accordingly made further alterations to the first movement in the printer’s proofs.

The original quartet undoubtedly reflected the emotional distress of his relations with Clara, and in conversations and correspondence Brahms implied that these tensions applied as well to the revision. He often referred to his stay with the Schumanns as his “Wertherzeit”, an allusion to Goethe’s popular romantic hero, Werther, who shoots himself because of his anguished and guilt-ridden love for a married woman whose husband he admires. He also used the Werther image in connection with both the original quartet and the revision.

The first movement – common to both the original and the revised quartet – sets a mood of darkness and melancholy. After a solid piano chord, the strings present the moody first theme, starting with a striking two-note phrase. A recent Brahms biographer, Malcolm MacDonald, suggests that the phrase “speaks the name ‘Clara’ “ and that the theme’s continuation is a version of the “Clara motive” that Schumann used in his music for her. At any rate, the two-note pattern plays a key role in the movement. The second theme is also of interest. The piano presents the eight-measure theme, and it seems unusually lyrical for so tense a movement. But Brahms then subjects the theme to four variations of increasing intensity, restoring the dark mood of the opening. The development begins with the two-note motive from the first theme, and its repetition and intensification leads to a restless treatment of the second theme’s second variation. The first and second themes are restated – the former in a strenuous new form and the latter with three new variations and a repeat of the second variation. The coda leaves the tension of the movement unresolved.

The second movement is the added scherzo – fast, vigorous, and intense, and, like the first movement, in a minor key. Instead of the contrasting middle section customary in a scherzo, the main section leads without pause to an episode that, while in a major key, scarcely changes the mood.

The deeply felt slow movement is thought by some biographers to be a declaration of love for Clara. The cello presents the main theme in a long solo written for the most part in the instrument’s higher register. The music gathers intensity as the first violin joins in. The second theme is a gentle syncopated strain introduced by the first violin. When the first theme returns, it is presented by the piano in octaves accompanied by a pizzicato figure for the viola and cello.

The fourth movement returns to the dark mood of the first. The first violin opens the movement with a 28-measure statement of the first theme accompanied by agitated eighth-notes in the piano. The second theme, stated by the violin, continues this restlessness, but the third theme, a chorale-like strain in the violin and viola, provides some relief. The development is based largely on the main and chorale themes, spun out at some length with much of it marked “tranquil and always very soft.” In the coda, the piano hammers out the chorale tune in a strong C major, but a sense of fatalism persists, and the quartet ends on a note of resignation.

Copyright © 2008 by Willard J. Hertz

Notes for: July 24, 2012

The C Minor Piano Quartet was perhaps the most painfully autobiographical of Brahms’s instrumental works. Although completed in 1875, its roots went back 20 years to the most stressful period of his life – namely, his ill-fated love affair with Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert Schumann. Brahms himself pointed out the impact of that traumatic experience on this quartet, and a summary of the affair will set the stage.

Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in September 1853, when, at the suggestion of mutual friends, he knocked on their door in Düsseldorf. At the time, Robert, 43, was a prominent composer, conductor and music journalist, and Clara, 34, was a leading concert pianist. Brahms, only 20, was still a struggling young composer. Brahms played his music for the Schumanns, and they were deeply impressed. Clara added Brahms’s piano works to her concert programs, and Schumann, in a widely read article, proclaimed that here at last was the heir to Beethoven.

Brahms became a frequent visitor and intimate family friend of the Schumanns, and witnessed Robert’s growing mental illness. Then, in February 1854, Brahms read in a newspaper that Schumann had attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He hurried to Düsseldorf to help Clara and her six children in any way he could, and he became virtually a full-time guest in the Schumann home.

In March, Robert was institutionalized. His doctors prohibited Clara from visiting him on the grounds that he would be upset by such visits, and Brahms became the primary contact between husband and wife. Then, in the autumn Clara embarked on an extensive concert tour to support her family, pay Robert’s medical bills, and continue bringing Robert’s works to the public. In effect, she left her household in Brahms’s care; he took over some of Clara’s teaching, helped the servants look after the children, and took charge of the family’s financial affairs.

While distressed by Robert’s declining health, Brahms’s devotion to Clara soon turned to love. With candor, he expressed his feelings in letters to Clara while she was on tour or on his rare absences from Düsseldorf. Did Clara reciprocate? Since Brahms subsequently destroyed all her responses, we cannot be sure, but the entries in her diary suggest that she found him exciting and attractive and his attentions flattering. There is no evidence, however, that the affair was ever consummated physically.

Schumann died in the asylum in July 1856. During the following year, Brahms again expressed his love to Clara, but one or both parties apparently decided against marriage. We can only speculate on the possible reasons: the 14-year difference in their ages; Clara’s six children; her reputation as a concert pianist while he was still making his mark as a composer; his inhibitions – despite other affairs, he never did marry. Brahms’s ardor cooled, but Clara and he remained close friends until her death 40 years later, and Clara was always among the first to hear and to criticize Brahms’s compositions.

In the winter of 1855-56 – at the height of his affair with Clara and his anxiety over Robert’s health – Brahms wrote a piano quartet in C- sharp minor. It was performed privately with friends, but Brahms was dissatisfied. His customary practice when dissatisfied with a composition was to destroy the manuscript. In this case, he set the work aside, suggesting that it had a special meaning for him and that he planned to return to it.

And there matters rested until the winter of 1873-74 when Brahms took the quartet from the shelf and began a process of revision and reorganization that lasted until the summer of 1875. He thoroughly revised the first movement, composed new slow and final movements and added a scherzo using material from the finale of the original. The revised quartet was then given its first performance in Vienna the following November.

But Brahms was still not ready to sign off. When he played the revised quartet for Clara, she was impressed by the last three movements but was critical of the first. Brahms accordingly made further alterations to the first movement in the printer’s proofs.

The original quartet undoubtedly reflected the emotional distress of his relations with Clara, and in conversations and correspondence Brahms implied that these tensions applied as well to the revision. He often referred to his stay with the Schumanns as his “Wertherzeit”, an allusion to Goethe’s romantic hero, Werther, who shoots himself because of his guilt-ridden love for a married woman whose husband he admires. Brahms used the Werther image in referring to both the original quartet and the revision.

The first movement, allegro non troppo – common to both the original and the revised quartet – sets a mood of darkness and melancholy. After a solid piano chord, the strings present the moody first theme, starting with a striking two-note phrase. A recent Brahms biographer, Malcolm MacDonald, suggests that the phrase “speaks the name ‘Clara’ “ and that the theme’s continuation is a version of the “Clara motive” that Schumann used in his music for her. The two-note pattern plays a key role in the movement.

The second theme is also of interest. The piano presents the eight-measure theme, and it seems unusually lyrical for so tense a movement. But Brahms then subjects the theme to four variations of increasing intensity, restoring the dark mood of the opening.

The development begins with the two-note motive from the first theme, and its repetition and intensification leads to a restless treatment of the second theme’s second variation. The first and second themes are restated – the former in a strenuous new form and the latter with three new variations and a repeat of the second variation. The coda leaves the tension of the movement unresolved.

The second movement, allegro, is the added scherzo – fast, vigorous, and intense, and, like the first movement, in a minor key. Instead of the contrasting middle section customary in a scherzo, the main section leads without pause to an episode that, while in a major key, scarcely changes the mood.

The deeply felt slow movement, andante, is thought by some biographers to be a declaration of love for Clara. The cello presents the main theme in a long solo written for the most part in the instrument’s higher register. The music gathers intensity as the first violin joins in. The second theme is a gentle syncopated strain introduced by the first violin. When the first theme returns, it is presented by the piano in octaves accompanied by a pizzicato figure for the viola and cello.

The fourth movement, allegro comodo, returns to the dark mood of the first. The first violin opens the movement with a 28-measure statement of the first theme accompanied by agitated eighth-notes in the piano. The second theme, stated by the violin, continues this restlessness, but the third theme, a chorale-like strain in the violin and viola, provides some relief. The development is based largely on the main and chorale themes, spun out at some length with much of it marked “tranquil and always very soft.” In the coda, the piano hammers out the chorale tune in a strong C major, but a sense of fatalism persists, and the quartet ends on a note of resignation.

Copyright © 2012 by Willard J. Hertz