Brahms String Quartet in c, Op.51 no.1
When Beethoven died he left behind a legacy that would haunt every composer to follow. Especially in the genres of the symphony and the string quartet , he dominated them to the extent that his name became almost synonymous with the terms. It is no surprise, then, that many composers of the nineteenth century felt intimidated by Beethoven's ghost.
Brahms was no exception.
He spent over twenty years as a composer before he finally
published his first symphony. Likewise, his first string quartets
underwent a gestation period of several years before he felt they
were ready for the world. In fact, Brahms once claimed to have
written and destroyed no less than 20 quartets before bringing out
this one! It is no great surprise, then, that this quartet is so
polished and magnificent.
Hear Movements 1 & 4
Movement 1 | Movement 2 | Movement 3 | Movement 4
Recorded: in the TJHSST Auditorium on August 3-4, 1999
Violins: Michael Wilber and Alvin Lin;
Viola: Jeffrey Klein;
Cello: Charles Han;
A remarkable thing about this c minor quartet is that Brahms has packed every last bit of the music with the main musical ideas. There are no "filler" notes here; everything comes in some way or another from the main motifs. Arnold Schoenberg wrote a famous essay, "Brahms the Progressive", which praised Brahms for creating such a "totally thematic" piece of music.
Brahms' romantic ambition is apparent right from the start. The broad meter, lusty main theme, and driving energy all combine to set the tone for the rest of the piece: a tone of frustration and longing. Even when the second theme arrives the somber mood is not lost... the movement sustains this depressed state all the way into the agitated finale. Even there, the music does not leave with a bang but rather with an exhausted fade-out.
Unlike the old classicists, Brahms took care to make the middle movements have just as much weight as the outer ones. In the second and third movements we are at least treated to some moments of relief, but even these are muted in character. All the while, Brahms incorporates fragments of themes from the first movement, as a way of keeping a sense of unity between movements.
The last movement opens with a bang... perhaps the bang that we
never got at the end of the first? Certainly the opening statement
sounds like a remnant from the first movement, with that familiar
dotted figure. Now all four movements have been joined together
naturally through the use of thematic material. The fourth movement
is once again an expression of our main themes of frustration and
longing... the movement spends most of its time in an unstable
state, unable to find a key to call home. Near the end, Brahms
teases us a bit, making us think for a moment that perhaps the
music will move to C major (a move that would have brought a tone
of optimism to the closing of this piece). This expectation is
burst, however, when the music launches into a grim, tragic ending
that gives a final answer to the searching theme at the very start
of the quartet.
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