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Richard Strauss was the son of Franz Strauss, one of the finest horn-players of the 19th century and for many years the first horn of the Munich opera. Strauss Sr. was very conservative musically (he hated the operas of Wagner, which he played under the composer's direction) and insisted that his son have a "classical" music education - the models held up before the boy were Mozart and Mendelssohn. But 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 Musicians Society 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.
- A frequent speaker on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Upbeat Live series, Eric Bromberger writes program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra, Washington Performing Arts Society, San Francisco Performances, and a number of other musical organizations.