COMPOSED BY

Johannes Brahms (May 1833 - April 1897) in 1873

DURATION

Approximately 33 minutes (total 4 movements)

Instrumentation

Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello

SUMMARY OF THE COMPOSITION

Brahms’ first string quartet features full, rich textures, just like his other works. To mimic the sound of a symphony, Brahms used the C minor key in this string quartet, stretching the range of the piece as C is the lowest string on the cello.

1

Allegro

The first movement has an underlying rapid 8th-note motion. This motion can be heard in the rhythm and the main themes, which seem to be catching a breath. When the key changes to the relatively consoling E-flat major, the first violin still plays a nonreassuring idea, as it is being swept into the surrounding 8th-note activity before finally coming to an uneasy cadence. Even in the coda section, the compressed meter and fierce melody are unable to create a lasting resolution as the movement ends with the final C major chord.

2

Romanze. Poco adagio.

The second movement is a slow movement with a hinted true repose and interrupted mood. The rich, dark outer sections are played in A-flat major, articulating harmonic concord and rhythmic unity that blends perfectly most of the time. The horn enters at intervals to add to the bucolic mood. Contrasting this mood are the middle sections played in the minor key, where the restlessness of the first movement is repeated as the harmonies search restlessly from key to key before reaching a calm mood. The movement ends beautifully in a quieter and more lyrical element.

3

Allegretto molto moderato e comodo

The third movement is ambivalent on many levels, with a dark intermezzo that does not invite singing or dancing completely. It opens with a “double melody”, where the first violin and the viola seem to feel uneasy with each other. Melancholic mood is heard through its persistently descending lines, as if spiralling into a darker psychic level. The perpetual motion of the first movement revisited in a more somber mood, evoking a restless, painful reflection through the opening violin melody, the pulsated bassline and uneasy syncopated accompaniment. In contrast, the trio middle section gives off a sunny vibe but it is a short-lived one that passes like a dream.

4

Allegro

The finale is fiery and impetuous. It opens with a compressed version of the first movement’s opening motif, as if returning to answer lingering questions but with vigour. A highly polyphonic four voices can be heard. The contrasting theme soars beautifully into higher registers, adding a sense of upwardness and accelerating to its conclusion in an intense coda. 

WHO IS ... JOhannes Brahms?

Suprising fun facts

  • Brahms was stubborn and uncompromising, but he showed a softer side with children. 
  • As a perfectionist, he often destroyed pieces he deemed unworthy, including more than 20 string quartets and most of his early compositions.
  • To put the melodies on paper, he created his own method of writing music when he was six.
  • Brahms was very close to Robert and Clara Schumann, who considered him as part of their family.
  • Brahms was the childhood piano teacher of Max Steiner, a film composer.

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