Among an impressive output of chamber works for strings in various combinations and for strings with other instruments Brahms produced only three string quartets and these came somewhat late in his career. The first two quartets, Op. 51, were premiered in 1873 when the composer was 40, and a third, Op. 67, was first heard in 1876. All of these works were the final result of years of rejected attempts by a composer noted for his self-criticism and patient perfectionism.
Brahms considered the string quartet a key and challenging genre, particularly in the shadow of his revered Beethoven. Beethoven composed 16 quartets, which traced the evolution of the form from the six concentrated works of his Opus 18 from 1799/1800 through the grandiose, near-symphonic late quartets that transitioned into the Romantic era 25 years later.
Partially due to this imposing legacy, the Brahms quartets had a particularly slow and somewhat laborious genesis. The two works of Op. 51 were in semi-final form and were played through in 1869, though the composer continued to fine-tune them through the summer of 1873. Even so, prior to publication Brahms insisted on a “private” performance of both and continued to revise them.
Though the three quartets have since been described as “edifices of Gothic perfection,” their initial reception was mixed. However, they were seen as a welcome continuation of the great quartets of Beethoven and Schubert.
The first movement of the A-minor Quartet is in traditional sonata form, but the meticulous development of that expected form is pure Brahms. Immediately heard is Brahms’ characteristic rhythmic device of two counts (violin I) over three (viola). The influence of Schubert is particularly evident in the interlude of the song-like Andante moderato movement, and the graceful Quasi minuetto sections that alternate with the fanciful mid-sections of the third movement scherzo.
The characteristic Brahms “sound” comes to the fore in the finale, a rousing czárdás in the mode of his famous and popular Hungarian dances. The Quartet as a whole has been described as both delicately lyrical and “rather turbulent.”
The quartets are now also credited with inspiring a revitalized interest in the form by such 20th-century masters as Bartók, with his cycle of six quartets. They were also an influence on Schoenberg who, in his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” lauded the quartets for their advances in harmony, counterpoint, and the meticulous development of concentrated motifs.