BRAHMS: String Quartets Op. 51, Nos. 1 and 2 (Ludwig Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554271)
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String Quartet in Cminor, Op. 51, No. 1
String Quartet in Aminor, Op. 51, No. 2
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bassplayer and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relativepoverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a naturalaptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touringas a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him agrounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped hisfamily by playing the piano in dockside taverns.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi, whointroduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work.
Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, theirjourney taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim,to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to showparticular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profited from the visit, butBrahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress theMaster. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim'sagency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent,Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in D??sseldorf,the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music ofBrahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in thejournal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift f??r Musik, declaringBrahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann,who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression,attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spentin an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, thegifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm frienduntil her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to returnin triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. Thisambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to manyto fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, aboveall, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successorto Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musicalassociations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted byWagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publiclyexpressed their opposition.
Brahms made a significant contribution to chamber music repertoire. Hisfirst attempts were made in the early 1850s and are now lost, but in 1853 hewrote a movement for the composite violin sonata by Schumann and his pupilAlbert Dietrich intended for Joachim. After the first of his String Sextets,in 1860, he turned his attention to Piano Quartets and the PianoQuintet, followed in 1865 by the second Sextet. His first stringquartet, the String Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1, waswritten between 1868 and 1873, and is more or less contemporary with the StringQuartet in A minor, Opus 51, No. 2, completed in the same year. A thirdquartet, the String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 67, followed in 1876and in 1883 and 1890 Brahms added two String Quintets. His last chambermusic was written for the clarinet, a quintet and two poignantly moving sonatasthat were composed in 1894.
As with much of his work, the Opus 51 Quartets represent someyears of earlier experiment. Brahms claims to have destroyed a score ofattempts at the form, some of which seem to have reached playable form, beforetheir destruction or recomposition. In 1869 he had rejected offers of teachingpositions in Cologne and in Berlin, offered by Ferdinand Hiller and by Joachimrespectively, in the hope of an appointment in Vienna, where he settleddefinitively in that year. It was not until 1872 that he was offered andaccepted the position of conductor and artistic adviser of the ViennaGesellschaft der Musikfreunde concerts, a position he held for three seasons.
Once Brahms had settled in Vienna, he followed the custom of spendingsummer holidays in the country, periods when he was able to devote himself tocomposition with relatively little interruption. In 1873 he spent the summer atTutzing, near Munich, and it was here that he completed the first two stringquartets that he thought fit for publication, Opus 51, dedicating them to thedistinguished surgeon and musical amateur Theodor Billroth, whom he had firstmet during a summer holiday near Zurich in 1866. Brahms seems to have worked onthe demanding musical form for some years and it would seem that he had draftedpreliminary versions of the quartets during the years immediately precedingtheir completion. As with the symphony, he was very conscious of the traditionthat lay behind the genre, the work of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
This awareness of the past and of the present expectations in Vienna made himtake the kind of care that even Mozart had found it necessary to exercise inthe quartets he dedicated to Haydn in the 1780s. Brahms's two quartets hadtheir first performance in the year of their completion, given by the JoachimQuartet, a recent misunderstanding with Joachim over the failure to include theGerman Requiem in the Schumann Festival in Bonn that autumn now more orless forgotten.
The String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Opus 51, No. 1, openswith an Allegro in which the first violin presents the first theme overrepeated notes in accompaniment from the viola and cello, imparting an immediateelement of tension. The first subject continues in a remoter key, before thereturn of the theme played in octaves by the viola and cello, now accompaniedby the violins; and leading eventually to the lyrical second subject. Theexposition ends with a cello version of the opening figure and it is the firstsubject that finds an important place in the central development section, withits modulation to C sharp minor, before the original key and first subjectreturn in recapitulation. The cello again offers its version of the openingfigure, before the coda. The A flat major second movement, with the title Romanze,offers an opening first violin theme over a figure suggesting a horn-call,followed by a section of secondary material. The process is repeated, with thefirst theme now varied, followed by a version of the secondary material, now inthe home key. The F minor third movement is a very Brahmsian form of scherzo,characterized by the descending contours of its melodic line and contrastedwith a trio section in F major, where the principal first violin theme isaccompanied by bariolage, the alternation of fingered and open A, fromthe second violin. Both middle movements had included thematic reference to theprincipal theme of the first movement. The same is true of the final Allegro,broadly in tripartite sonata-form, although it lacks the clearer sectionaldivision of the first movement, seeming to absorb the expected centraldevelopment into the recapitulation. Like the rest of the quartet it issymphonic and orchestral in conception and characteristically dense in itstextures.
It may seem in these first published string quartets that Brahms wasvery conscious not only of classical trad