@ ASC, Concert Calendar
November 11 — 11:30 am
Venue: Arlington Street Church
Scherzo in C minor from the F.A.E. Sonata
Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25
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The bold, powerful violin traverses the full breadth of its range, supported by the ever-driving piano in Brahms’ Scherzo in C minor from the F.A.E. Sonata. Originally one-third of a sonata collectively written by Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Albert Dietrich for the great violinist Joseph Joachim, the Scherzo is often played alone, easily carried by its own intensity and whirlwind pace. The piano virtuoso Clara Schumann pronounced herself “tenderly transported to dreamland” by the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. From the brisk march in the Andante con moto to the use of Hungarian style in the last movement, the quartet shows that even early in his career Brahms had a knack for reinventing pre-existing forms.
Scherzo in C minor from the “F-A-E” Sonata, WoO 2 
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 
Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
In 1853, the violinist Joseph Joachim introduced his young friend Johannes Brahms to an important new ally: Robert Schumann. Although Schumann’s mental health was already destabilizing—leading to a suicide attempt the next year—he was experiencing one of his last lucid surges of creativity during Brahms’ month-long visit to Düsseldorf. Schumann had the idea that the two of them, along with another young composer, Albert Dietrich (a local student of Schumann’s), should collaborate on a surprise gift to Joachim. They dubbed the project the “F-A-E” Sonata, taking the initials from Joachim’s personal motto: Frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”). They presented the score to Joachim that October, and he read through it with the three composers present, accompanied by Robert’s wife, Clara Schumann, at the piano.
Brahms’s contribution was a Scherzo in C minor. Even at this early phase in his development as a composer, the essential ingredients were all in place: a penchant for layered textures and superimposed rhythms, deft modulations in and out of a harmonic home base, and an ability to string long phrases together that glide over the supporting meter. The sweet strains of the trio section reveal a keen ear for melody, and if the thunderous ending is perhaps a bit overblown, we can forgive a 20-year-old on the cusp of greatness for his moment of grandiosity.
After Robert Schumann’s leap into the Rhine River and confinement to an insane asylum in 1854, his young friend Brahms moved to Düsseldorf to help manage the Schumann household and care for the children while Robert’s wife, Clara, supported the family playing concert tours. This arrangement ended two years later, forcing Brahms to reconcile both the loss of his mentor and his painful separation from Clara. (What exactly was their relationship status? We might say, in today’s parlance, “It’s complicated.”) The next years were filled with setbacks and disappointments, especially in the realm of orchestral music. Brahms finally regained his footing by following the model of Schumann and working in the genre of chamber music, even though it was hardly the fashion in a musical culture dominated by the grandiose experiments of Wagner and Liszt.
After completing a breakthrough string sextet, Brahms crafted three immortal scores in formats championed by Schumann: two piano quartets (both from 1861) and a piano quintet (1862). Besides Schuman, Brahms could look to the example of Mozart, who composed two quartets for the same combination of piano, violin, viola and cello. Like Mozart, Brahms placed his First Piano Quartet in the stormy key of G minor, defying from the start the idea of chamber music as good-natured, unchallenging music for the amusement of amateurs.
The other titan standing over Brahms’ shoulder was Beethoven, who perfected the art of distilling motives down to their essence. (The fourteen-year-old Beethoven did write three piano quartets, but they were immature works that held far less importance for the future of chamber music than his later piano trios and other efforts.) The main theme of Brahms’ opening Allegro movement, introduced in quiet octaves by the piano alone, is a model of Beethovenian efficiency. Four evenly spaced quarter-notes set up two signature intervals: The first pair outlines a wide leap up, while the second pair ascends by just a narrow half-step. The very next measure flips the direction, tracing a downward leap and a descending half step. These simple but distinctive ingredients allow for countless manipulations, with each two-note unit measured against the listener’s memory of what has come before.
The first movement’s bold argument leaves a residue that persists for the rest of the quartet. Whether or not we recognize it consciously, there is a familiarity to the wispy melody that starts the Intermezzo, with its heavy emphasis on the rising half-step at the end of each phrase. The Andante con moto third movement might seem a world apart, with its songlike melody and stately bearing, and yet once again it traces a theme in steady quarter-notes, the first two notes forming an upward leap, the second two notes countering with a rising half-step. Patterns of pulsing triplets echo the similar figures in the Intermezzo.
The triumphant climax of the contrasting Animato section is a hard summit to top, but the finale rises to the challenge with its Rondo alla zingarese. The brisk tempo and vigorous accents mimic the Hungarian or “Gypsy” sound that Brahms fell in love with as teenager, when Hungarian refugees passed through his hometown of Hamburg en route to America. Even here the rigorous logic holds firm, with accented half-steps and other familiar intervals advancing the emphatic message of this epic quartet.
© 2017 Aaron Grad (www.aarongrad.com)
Aaron Grad is a composer and guitarist. He has also been the exclusive program annotator for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra since 2005, and contributed program notes to the Cleveland Orchestra, New World Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Celebrity Series, Columbia Artists Management, and others. His concert reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, and PlaybillArts regularly publishes his feature articles and interviews online.