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Piano Quartet No.3 in C Minor Op.60

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Piano Quartet No.3 in C Minor Op.60

Just as had been the case with many of Brahms’ previous works, the Piano Quartet in C Minor Op.60 contains at least some music composed long before. In the middle 1850s Brahms had written a movement in C sharp minor containing the essential musical ideas of the later work’s opening movement. After trying out that first version privately in November 1856, he dropped the piece for nearly two decades. When Brahms returned to the quartet, it became very different. He wrote new music for the last two movements in the winter of 1873-74, but the first two movements retained an earlier form, though the music rewriting, as in the Piano Trio No.1 in B Major Op.8.

The dark turmoil of the opening movement hints at the emotional pressure he was under. Brahms composed the early version during the terrible last days of his friend Robert Schumann, or immediately after Schumann’s death, and when he sent the early version to his friend Theodor Billroth, Brahms revealed its personal quality in the modest remark: `This quartet is only communicated as a curiosity, say as an illustration to the last chapter of the Man with the Blue Jacket and the Yellow Vest.’ The reference is to the despairing young man in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in the last chapter of which Werther commits suicide. Whether or not Brahms himself ever seriously contemplated taking his own life, he may have withheld the original version for too openly revealing his hopeless love for Clara Schumann.

Distance in time gave him enough objectivity to rework the movement into the final quartet. In the version of 1875, the fiercely energetic opening movement features a downward-tending motive in the strings, evoking a tragic power alternating with a few moments of relative calm. The scherzo continues in the same key with the same kind of ferocity. We know that it was composed earlier than the last two movements but not whether it formed part of the original C sharp minor version, or came from a different unfinished composition, or was written independently.

The andante was once thought to have been part of the original version of the score, possibly an avowal of the composer’s love for Clara. Yet Clara’s response when she heard the piece in 1875 made it clear that the movement was new; it has long been regarded as one of the highest peaks of Brahmsian melodic writing. The finale is virtually a perpetuo moto, the ending of which, despite the major key and tranquillo marking, does not entirely banish the memory of things past. Clara Schumann herself noted in 1875 that the progression of the work through the four movements created `an intensification right up to the end that fairly takes your breath away.’

Steven Ledbetter

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