Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
Composed in c. 1865–1873; 29 minutes
In a famous article titled “New Paths,” published in 1853, Robert Schumann lauded the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, whom he had just met for the first time, as a genius who seemed to have sprung forth “like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” As Brahms auditioned his works for the older composer at the piano, Schumann felt himself being “drawn into ever deeper circles of enchantment.... There were sonatas, rather veiled symphonies—songs, whose poetry one could understand without knowing the words...single pianoforte pieces, partly demoniacal, of the most graceful form—then sonatas for violin and piano—quartets for strings—and every one so different from the rest that each seemed to flow from a separate source.”
We may never know anything about the early string quartets that worked their spell on Schumann, for Brahms destroyed each and every one of them. In fact, by the time he began work on his C-minor Quartet in the mid- to late 1860s, Brahms had by his own count written and discarded no fewer than 20 quartets, none of which apparently measured up to his exacting standards. As in contemplating his first symphony, Brahms was paralyzed by the thought of following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, especially at a time when the string quartet had fallen out of favor with his fellow “progressive” composers. Friends were constantly asking when his first quartet would be ready, and Brahms became adept at putting them off.
“It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six early quartets,” he reminded his publisher, Fritz Simrock, in 1869, “so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done. They should not fail you, but if I were a publisher I should not be in such a hurry.” Simrock was the soul of patience; four years later he was still waiting for Brahms to deliver when he received a letter containing further discouraging news: “I give myself the greatest trouble and keep on hoping that something really great and difficult will occur to me, and they turn out mean and paltry!” A few weeks later Brahms finally admitted to himself that he would never be fully satisfied and shipped the two Op. 51 quartets off to Simrock.
Whatever misgivings he may have felt about the works’ quality, ingratiating himself with the public clearly was not uppermost in Brahms’s mind. The Op. 51 quartets are among his most severe and uncompromising chamber works. The urgently rising motif that opens the C-minor Quartet, like a tightly coiled spring, generates a tension that doesn’t unwind until a few bars before the final C-major cadence. (The same motif recurs at the beginning of the fourth movement, illustrating Brahms’s growing concern with large-scale thematic unity.) The two inner movements provide an interlude of bittersweet introspection, but the dark, intense drama of the opening Allegro reemerges in the finale, a sustained burst of energy characterized by restless cross-rhythms and intricate part writing.
Photo: Brahms, age 20
© 2014 Harry Haskell
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