Chamber Music Houston Chamber Music Houston




    DATE: Tuesday, September 20, 2016

    TIME: 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM

    Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music
    Rice University


    Complete Brahms Cycle

    • The Three String Quartets

    Brahms, Quartet in B♭ Major, Op. 67

    • Vivace
    • Andante
    • Agitato: Allegretto non troppo
    • Poco allegretto con Variazioni

    No composer had as rigorous and ruthless a sense of self-criticism as Johannes Brahms. That is why, despite attempts at writing string quartets, which began in his teen years, he was forty years old before he produced any he was willing to publish. Once ready, he published two at the same time, appearing in November 1873 as Op. 51, No. 1 & 2 with the third, Op. 67, following in 1876.

    The first quartet, Op. 51, No. 1, a work of intense Romanticism, personal and passionate, hides the disciplined years of the study of classical forms and counterpoint which Brahms carried out through much of his career (a discipline for which he was subjected to the contemporary slur of being “old-fashioned”). A heart-throb character unifies each of the first three movements. Except for the third movement, each is dominated by the single idea of a rising motif set against a falling one. The opening Allegro starts with a sweeping, agitated, ascending statement, which rapidly moves away from the home key into a new tonal area while changing character to something tender and yearning. The music becomes rhythmically complex almost to the point of instability as the voices weave about each other, each in its own world of accents. Only the cello keeps everything together. The emotional impact of this movement is due in part to the great harmonic range employed; ideas are developed so richly that each player feels his part is the most important and yet there is a level of formal, structural constraint such that one never loses a sense of focus.

    The three-note phrase which opens the Poco adagio (Romanze) is a paraphrase of the first movement, but now in a major key. The first violin weaves it as a counter theme. One could look at this movement as an expansion of the first movement – an idea seen from a different point of view. Innumerable canons, an echo of the Baroque past, subtly permeate this deeply Romantic movement constituting a virtuoso display of contrapuntal writing.

    Brahms links the Allegretto to the first movement not by thematic material but by its agitated, almost breathless spirit of yearning and the contrasting rising and falling motives, which he presents in rich interplay among the four instruments. In the lilting, animato middle section, now shifted into a major key, Brahms makes use of a favorite device known as bariolage, a technique possible only on a stringed instrument, in which the same note is sounded in rapid succession on two different strings, one “open” the other “stopped,” setting up rich, penetrating overtones as a background to the other instruments. Listen for it initially in the second violin, then in the viola, and then again and most noticeably in the second violin.

    The work ends with a powerful Allegro whose main theme is generated from the opening movement. Strength of sound contrasted with haunting tenderness – and again masterful interweaving of the voices – gives this movement a complex symphonic scope. In a letter to its dedicatee, his close friend the famous surgeon and pathologist Theodor Billroth, Brahms indicated that he had finally produced a string quartet worthy of publication. The continued popularity of this work by performers and audiences confirms his belief.

    Brahms, Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

    • Allegro non troppo
    • Andante moderato
    • Quasi menuetto, moderato - Allegretto vivace
    • Finale: Allegro non assai

    If the first quartet explores turbulence, drama and vigor among four string instruments, the second leans more to the lush and lyric, and has always been the most popular and accessible of Brahms's output in the genre. Not only does he exploit the singing quality of the instruments, but the writing is transparent, in comparison to much of Brahms's other work.

    Both of the Op. 51 quartets were dedicated to Brahms's close friend, the renowned surgeon and avid amateur musician, Theodor Billroth (1829-94). But there is strong evidence to show that the dedication of the second one was originally intended for Brahms's longtime friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, arguably the greatest exponent of quartet-playing in Europe. The opening phrase of the work incorporates an anagram of Joachim's motto, "Free but lonely" (Frei aber einsam , represented by three of the first four notes [A] F A E). This series of notes appears at strategic moments throughout the entire quartet, sometimes in reverse, sometimes in contrapuntal imitation (a reminder of the counterpoint studies the two friends carried on in the 1850s), sometimes even as the bass line, where it creates the harmony. But a serious falling out marred the men’s friendship just as the quartet was completed, the likely reason for Brahms's change of the dedication.

    The quartet has four movements in the order one would expect, a tie to the past which has caused so many music historians to call Brahms a conservative. But every movement is filled with surprise, and this is one of the pieces Arnold Schoenberg used as an example of the progressiveness of Brahms's method of composition. The first movement is in sonata-allegro form. It has the requisite two contrasting themes in the keys one expects – but the real motif of the movement is a shape, exemplified by the violin theme right at the beginning – two rising skips and then one descending. Throughout the movement, the notes and the sizes of the intervals change, but the shape can be found everywhere, as theme, as inner texture. The movement looks to the future in another way: supposedly in A minor, the piece begins in tonal ambiguity. Having started by wandering through a series of unstable chords into distant keys, Brahms takes a full twenty bars before landing solidly in A minor to reassure us that the title of the piece is no misprint. In contrast, the rest of the key relationships are traditional and the movement concise. A very short development section leads to a false return (where the cello firmly plays the theme and the other instruments are in rhythmic unison) so that one becomes only gradually aware of the real recapitulation, nineteen bars later. It is a mysterious return.

    The second movement is one of Brahms's gorgeous andantes. It is almost, but not quite, the usual ABA form, but here the B middle section has a second phrase which is related to the A section. When A returns, it is as a variant and in the wrong key; the real return is with the cello solo, which leads to a wonderfully delicate and richly interwoven coda.

    Brahms was correct to entitle his third movement Quasi Menuetto, because what ought to be the contrasting Trio section is in 2/4 time rather than the traditional 3/4 – highly irregular. As if to make amends, this Allegretto section is twice broken into by a Tempo di Menuetto in 3/4 time, making a complex section out of what is traditionally the simplest part of the piece. Filled with syncopations which require perfect precision between the players, it is also exceedingly difficult to play. Listen for the bridge back to the beginning; the five-bar chorale is an anagram of Joachim's motto – this time E A F, Einsam aber Frei.

    The vigorous last movement is one of Brahms's remarkable sonata-rondo combinations. The rondo has three elements, the second of which acts like a second theme. Each repetition of the three elements presents them in new lights, a kind of continuous development – again pointing the way to the future. The movement has an enormous range of texture and contrapuntal effect, making use of all of Brahms's technical skill. Topping it all, the first theme is designed to be harmonized by the retrograde of Joachim's motto, as one discovers in a choral section just before the final piu vivace. It one of Brahms's most exciting finales.

    This is the easiest of Brahms's three quartets to comprehend. But for the performer, it presents the same pitfalls as all of Brahms's chamber music: each part is so enticingly written, each part so inspires the player to play out, that only long training in communal self-denial enables a good quartet to avoid producing a continuous dull roar and instead, to subdue individual parts in favor of the leading voice of the moment. This quality of Brahms's music is a by-product of his philosophy of composition. "A musician is no machine," Brahms once told a musical friend, "he is a human being; he must always have something to say. Whoever has the dissonant note must also have its resolution." To follow each players' part in this quartet is to discover that Brahms practiced what he preached, and to understand why musicians so love to perform his chamber works.

    Brahms, Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1

    • Allegro
    • Romanze: Poco adagio
    • Allegretto molto moderato e comodo
    • Allegro

    The most genial of the three, this quartet was composed when Brahms was in a particularly jolly frame of mind. He had recently given up his burdensome post as music director of one of Vienna's leading orchestras, he had come to terms with his first symphony after fourteen years of gestation – both the symphony and the quartet were completed during the same summer – and he was at the threshold of the most masterful and productive period of his life.

    In a teasing letter to his publisher, he sent him the work with a request for the astounding sum of 5,000 taler, gradually reducing the sum in the course of the letter: "From this you will deduct 1000 taler out of innate meanness; for keeping you waiting 500; for only two key signatures in B-flat 250 tlr.; for cigars, tobacco, odekolonje [read aloud to decipher and don't forget the soft j] 750 tlr.; because of mistakes in tallying and calculating another 1000 will be lost, and 200 tlr. you had loaned to me, that leaves a remainder of 800 tlr." He hinted at laundry bills for shirts and pocket-handkerchiefs yet to come, and asked for the rest to be paid "punctually in quarterly installments of at least 10 tlrs. in Hanoverian bank notes," a currency they both knew was worthless, commenting that he only accepted it at a discount.

    In this high-spirited mood he dedicated the quartet to his good friend, Prof. Dr. Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann, amateur cellist and one of the discoverers of bacterial photosynthesis. "I will probably publish a string quartet shortly and may need a physician in attendance (like the first) [a reference to the dedication of Op. 51 to the surgeon, Dr. Theodor Billroth] . . . no question of a forceps delivery, but merely a matter of standing by. There is no violoncello solo in it, but a viola solo so tender that you may well change your instrument for its sake!"

    Soon after, the work was premiered by the quartet of Brahms's long-time friend, Joseph Joachim, who was also entrusted with the bowings and even the fingerings of the first edition.

    It is not easy to describe this piece. In outward form a perfectly ordinary quartet, consisting of four traditional movements, there is nevertheless almost nothing ordinary about this work. For one thing, it features the viola, normally the most difficult of the four for the ear to pick out; until the Bartók quartets, it is the most glamorous work for that instrument in the repertory. And then there is the first movement. It starts innocently enough in B-flat major, 6/8 time, sounding for all the world like Mozart's Hunt quartet. Eight measures later, we are jolted into remembering that this is Brahms, not Mozart: six eighth notes can be ordered in two ways, either in two groups of three, or in three groups of two. After the opening phrase, Brahms pushes the music abruptly from the first grouping to the second, then switches back and forth in a dazzling display of metric ambiguity so that the listener hearing this work for the first time can be forgiven for wondering what is happening. Throughout the movement Brahms toys with the many ways these two groupings can be juxtaposed; there are even times when the musicians play in differing but coinciding time signatures ¬– a common practice in 20th century music, but rare for the 19th century. It is worth remembering the opening phrase of this movement, as well as the sinuous second subject (in F minor) played by all four strings in unison eighth notes but in contrary motion, for we shall encounter them again.

    The Adagio is one of Brahms's gorgeous instrumental songs-without-words, cast quite normally in ABA form. What is unusual here is the A section when it returns: instead of repeating the instrumentation of solo violin versus accompaniment, the entire quartet plays as one instrument, with solo and accompaniment so intertwined that one can scarcely disentangle them. It is a remarkable tour de force.

    But the most striking movement is the Allegretto, with its solo viola throughout. It is curious that in his letter to Engelmann, Brahms referred to it as "tender." By the time of publication, he had changed the designation to read Agitato (Allegretto non troppo) , and indeed the violist must convey agitated melancholy. The ABA intermezzo is a genre perfected and probably invented by Brahms.

    With the fourth movement we have returned to unadulterated sunshine. This is a theme and variations, a choice for a last movement which harks back to the classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and in keeping with the mood of the beginning of the first movement. In this case, we have a set of seven variations and long coda on a folk-like theme in 2/4 time. At least, it begins by sounding like a folk tune, but the Brahms in it peeks out irrepressibly by virtue of the chromaticism and distant harmonies of the second half of the theme, and the abrupt end of the theme with virtually the same two bars as the beginning – a sort of musical palindrome. The variations proceed in the usual way, with increasing complexity and choice of more distant keys. By the sixth variation we are in G-flat major, with syncopated legato upper strings against a pizzicato cello and then viola, all played piano, and molto dolce: a veil has obscured the sun. A sudden change in tempo and key signature restores the sun, and we are in the last variation. But now, instead of a simple 2/4 time, we are in 6/8, also a duple time but one which easily allows for the triple division of the beat. The theme is presented in outline form only, but somehow the inner voices sound vaguely familiar – soon these inner voices become the outer voices, still sounding quite familiar – and it will dawn on the listener that the first movement has insinuated itself into the last with perfect ease, and that the themes of the first movement are in fact worked out in such a way that both movements are compatible with and represent alternate versions of each other.

    The work ends in a joyous celebration of both movements simultaneously, and one feels sure that the famous surgeon, Theodor Billroth, was correct when he wrote ruefully to the famous scientist, Theodor Engelmann, that Brahms's dedications of his quartets to them would keep their names alive far longer than would any of their own work.

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