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As early as the 1850s Robert Schumann wrote prophetically of Johannes Brahms as a messiah who would not so much emerge gradually, but would instead reveal himself at once in his full artistic maturity. Schumann's prediction was dead-on, as Brahms' oeuvre would reveal an overall consistency of quality and stylistic singularity rivaled only by Bach. And many make the comparison, noting the similarities between these two giants who both stood at the twilights of their respective eras. The culmination of the Baroque period (in the works of Bach) represents a romanticism not unlike that of Brahms in 19th-century Vienna: an ideal balance of form and expression. Both composers would be regarded by the ends of their lives as old-fashioned and out of touch with their times, writing music whose emphasis on structural integrity and polyphony was regarded as unfashionably cerebral and academic.
This ultimate synthesis of beauty and brains common to the music of both, as well as the Romantic fruition which their styles embodied, would assure their immortality. Although Bach would not be heard again until his Mendelssohnian resuscitation three-quarters of a century following his death, Brahms' music has remained a staple since his death (even the feminist and post-modern critics of our generation find an ideal in Brahms' music).
The remarkable consistency of Brahms' output over the span of his career has certainly contributed to the impressive ratio of total composed works to those regarded as standard repertoire. In every genre Brahms made a lasting contribution; whether it be an orchestral or choral concert, chamber, vocal, or solo recital, the odds favor Brahms perhaps more than any other composer (Mozart and Beethoven are close contenders) as a likely name on the program.
As a composer of string-intensive chamber music, Brahms' range encompassed everything from the violin and cello sonatas and the piano trios all the way up to the string quintets and sextets. Like Mozart, Brahms favored the two violin/two viola/one cello combination (Boccherini and Schubert preferred a combination with one viola and two cellos).
A late work, the String Quintet in G, Op. 111, dates from 1890, the last decade of Brahms' life. Brahmsian hallmarks pervade the work on all levels, from the cross accents and hemiolas in the opening 9/8 movement, to the bittersweet melancholy of the D-minor Adagio. Typically Brahmsian is the intermezzo, which serves as a scherzo surrogate. The Hungarian folk element of the finale reminds us of the lighter side of the composer of the celebrated Hungarian Dances.
-- David Fick