String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
Although Schubert was fortunate enough to have a household in which his early string quartets could be performed in a private setting, resulting in a series of 11 graceful and charming works composed prior to the Quartettsatz, Johannes Brahms is said to have composed and discarded as many as 20 string quartets before finally, in 1873 at age 40, consenting to publish his first two works in this form. Before the appearance of his Opus 51, he had written – and published – a pair of string sextets, two piano quartets and a piano quintet, a trio for violin, horn, and piano, and a sonata for cello and piano. Aside from the cello sonata, these were forms in which Brahms could avoid direct comparison with Beethoven. As with the symphony, however, the string quartet was a genre where comparisons were unavoidable.
Happily, Brahms managed to dominate his self-doubt and the first two of his three string quartets, of which the C-minor work may have been completed sometime in 1865, were allowed to enter the world. They were described by the composer as “written for the second time summer 1873…; begun earlier.” As was the case with his long-awaited First Symphony, the next work followed in short order: his Quartet No. 3, Opus 67, was published just three years later.
There is a remarkable coherence to the thematic material that informs the C-minor Quartet. Analysts have demonstrated that a single kernel is the source for the themes of the opening and the closing movements. The sudden upward rush that opens the work sets the mood for a movement that has been called “robust and sentimental.” The intensity subsides for some lyrical interludes, but the turbulent mood soon returns.
Brahms’ string writing exhibits the characteristic richness of texture that makes his scores so rewarding, both as listening and performing experiences. The second movement, which is designated as a Romanze, has a restrained, pensive quality.
For a composer who exhibited such a sense of humor in his letters, Brahms seems to have had some hesitation about writing scherzos. There is, in fact, a kind of sadness that pervades the third movement of this work: in the First Symphony – also in C minor – the equivalent movement is marked grazioso, here it is comodo; the central “trio” section calls for the second violin to play a single note alternating between two strings, producing a rustic effect; the sadness lingers.
The intensity that marked the opening Allegro returns in the final movement, with a condensed formal plan that superimposes thematic elements one upon the other. Brahms retains the dramatic key of C minor throughout, avoiding the heroic major-key resolution which will cap the First Symphony three years later.
Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Associate Director of Publications.