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Brahms’s Werther Quartet and the Art of Chamber Music

Zen Kuriyama Culminating Paper for MUS 507-Studies in Chamber Music History December 7, 2015

Dr. Keith Johnston, Instructor

Department of Music Stony Brook University Stony Brook, NY 11794

Johannes Brahms composed some of the most significant pieces in the Western classical music repertory. Often referenced alongside Bach and Beethoven, Brahms is associated with several major works for orchestra, his A German Requiem, and his considerable output for solo piano, most popularly his Intermezzos. While all were composed with finesse and nuance, none of the aforementioned mediums are truly representative examples of the form Brahms impacted most significantly during his life: the Art of Chamber Music. His chamber music was a unique synthesis of two highly contrasting eras in music, combining Classical form- with exactitude of structure- with Romantic heart and appeal to pathos. Several scholars have noted this synthesis and revitalisation of the Classical and Romantic, and even the use of this specific medium to record chronological personal events. Sara Ruth Watson, in her article “The Romantic Brahms,” quotes renowned musical biographer Robert Haven Schauffler: “The vivid romanticism in this sturdy classicist [Brahms] is daily coming to be more and more fully savoured...It is the twentieth century's achievement to discover in Brahms that potent combination of classicist with romanticist - that fine balance between shaping intellect and enriching emotion - which is characteristic of the highest in art.”1 It is well known that Brahms also had a love for Clara Schumann that was both beautiful in its authenticity and destructive in its intensity, which manifested itself in “Clara themes” in several of his chamber pieces.2 For the purposes of this discourse, analysis of the C-minor piano quartet, Opus 60, will be done, using relevant primary sources, existing scholarship, and critical reception of this work. In addition to possessing a 1

Sara Ruth Watson, “The Romantic Brahms,” The American Scholar 1, vol. 14 (1947-48), 69.

2 It

should be noted that the Clara motifs/themes originated in the compositions of Robert Schumann, and had various manifestations. The motif spells out- as one would think- Clara’s name; most commonly, a descending pattern of some nature starting on “C” and that returns to “A.”


Classical-Romantic synthesis and unique rhythmic and tonal ambiguity, the C-minor quartet serves as a musical snapshot of an agonizing period in Brahms’s life. This intimately autobiographical nature of the quartet is another testament to how Brahms influenced the compositional expansion of chamber music. The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann has been widely studied in Brahms literature, and understanding the intricacies of this perilous relationship is essential to the comprehension of the C-minor piano quartet. In short, it stands without question that Brahms had a love for Clara that consumed him. While still married to Robert Schumann, Brahms wrote to Clara: I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and do as many good things for you, as you would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can hardly express it. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you.3

Although Brahms had strong feelings for Clara, he also had great respect and admiration for Robert, as both a musician and as a mentor. Indeed, this high esteem that Brahms held for both of the Schumanns made his romantic feelings towards Clara very disconcerting and troubling, and he actively tried to bury his affection for Clara on multiple occasions. However, so deep was Brahms’s despair at the futility of ignoring his feelings that he had at one time contemplated suicide.4 Soon after Robert’s death in 1856, Brahms sought to salvage his heart and distanced himself physically from Clara, which proved to be just as difficult for Clara as it was for Brahms.5 Despite the resolve to leave his love for Clara to die from lack of a lack of attention, their mutual respect for each other as artists led to occasional visits and collaborations which 3

Hans Gál, Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality (New York: Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 1963), 90.


Gàl, 117. 5

Eugenie Schumann, The Schumanns and Johannes Brahms: The Memoirs of Eugenie Schumann (Lawrence: Music Book Society, 1927), 154.


despite their infrequency- did not help quell their mutual love for each other. Three years after Robert’s death, Brahms wrote of Clara: I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even—I don't know, it seems so natural that she would not take it ill.6

As seen in these primary documents, Brahms clearly loved Clara more than he respected her, which is a testament to how deep seated and genuine his affection for her was. Clara was one of the finest pianists in Europe during the nineteenth century; this, coupled with her personal strength and artistic conviction, made her the subject of intense admiration for Brahms. Indeed, Brahms never married, and called off several engagements he was involved in. It should be noted that Clara was fourteen years older than Brahms, which further led to the improbability of any type of union. The C-minor quartet is often referred to as the Werther quartet, and it has been argued that Brahms’s compositional inspiration was the main character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which Peter Smith describes as a “novella about the emotional agony and eventual suicide of a young man in love with the wife of an admired older friend.”78 It goes almost without saying that the plot of this Goethe story is an exact parallel of Brahms’s relationship with Clara. In addition to this highly specific personal narrative, other primary documents are telling of the depth of despair surrounding the composition of this work. Upon finishing a version of the first movement in 1868, Brahms’s wrote to friend Hermann Deiters before showing him the work: “Imagine a man who is about to shoot himself, and for 6

Gàl, 90. 7

Peter H. Smith, Expressive Forms in Brahms’s Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005), 3. 8

I will be using Dr. Smith’s book a great deal throughout this paper, for two fundamental reasons: first, it is the only substantial musicological work that focuses exclusively on the Werther quartet and, two, its very recent publication makes it an appropriate source for current scholarship.


who there is no other way out.”9 While many works in music up until this point had been inspired by literature, no work had elicited such a frank suggestion from a composer in order to understand their composition. While finished in 1875, Brahms began writing the C-minor piano quartet in the mid-1850s, at the peak of his emotional distress with Clara. That the C-minor piano quartet served as an expression of suicidal anguish was revolutionary for chamber music at the time, especially combined with very traditional compositional form and structure. In many respects, due to the plot mirroring of the Werther narrative, the C-minor piano quartet can be seen as a form of program music. However, due to the highly intimate and personal nature of the implied story, the piece is then a form of inverted program music, since the listener would need to be aware of both Brahms’s personal life and the purposeful intention of composing the quartet with Goethe’s novella in mind. Brahms, however, is frequently associated with absolute music, and indeed making the claim that Op. 60 is program music isnaturally- debatable.10 Furthermore, Brahms’s chamber music compositions in particular are generally in contention with program music, which was a growing trend in the nineteenth century.11 The pertinent question, then, can be posed: why now? Why turn to the essential ideals of program music? The grave nature of Brahms’s suicidal thoughts need to be considered, and it is very likely the Brahms- in almost inadvertent way- was reaching out to the world for help. However radical the emotional scope behind its composition, the C-minor piano quartet pays homage to the great chamber music tradition from the very beginning: the choice of 9

Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, rev. ed., 4 vols. in 8, (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1913-22),

232. 10

Absolute music describes instrumental music that has no extra-narrative nature; that is, it is music for the sake of music. Conversely, program music is meant to carry a story or thematic element (hence the creation of program notes). When the term ‘program music’ is used, it is implied that the listener/audience member has preexisting knowledge of the narrative to be conveyed. 11

Smith, 5.


tonality. Brahms had initially written the piece in C# minor, but decided on C minor due to previous composers’ treatment of the key. Beginning in the Baroque and expanded upon in the Classical period, C minor was a key reserved for pieces expressing deep sadness, melancholy, and bemoaning one’s fate and existence.12 Brahms looked to the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, and saw that their most foreboding and ominous pieces were set in this key.13 In further adherence to Classical form and structure, the exposition of the quartet modulates to the relative major of Eb and accentuates the mediant, which is characteristic of nineteenth-century sonata form, as seen in Example 1 below.

Example 1. M. 70, First Movement. Articulation of the mediant. The appearance of tonal ambiguity appears in the recapitulation, where the exposition’s secondary material appears in the major dominant, rather than the tonic. This striking transposition to G major at m. 236 gives listeners the illusion of peace and stability, but a dominant function tonality- according to Classical compositional techniques- must resolve to tonic. Brahms does indeed “resolve” to tonic, but not the satisfying C-major tonic our Westerntrained ears are accustomed to hearing. Instead, we resolve to C minor at the coda in m. 313, in the throes of the haunting octaves in which the piece began. This sense of calm serenity 12

James Webster, “Schubert’s Sonata Form and Brahms’s First Maturity,” 19th-century music 2, (1979), 3.


Haydn’s C-Minor London Symphony, no. 95; Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491; Schubert’s Quartettsatz.


however false- being interrupted by the ‘reality’ of the established key area serves as a direct looking glass into Brahms’s life during the time of composition: poised and dignified on the exterior, but being cognizant- despite valiant efforts- that despair is imminent and seemingly triumphant. By using a Classical sonata form structure to be the instrument of such tonal ambiguity, Brahms- within minutes- presents a finely-crafted synthesis of two musical epochs, in addition to providing insight into perhaps the most vulnerable moments in any individual’s life: the moment when one realizes that life is no longer worth living. Following bare octaves in the piano, the primary theme in the first movement of the quartet is played by the violin, viola, and cello, and consists of descending minor seconds, and a subsequent descending pattern. These quiet and slowly articulated slurs give one the impression of a sigh, and the forte bare octaves that of a heavy heart with no room other than despair. The descending theme in the violin is widely thought to be a Clara motif, but transposed and altered so as to be different than Robert’s.14 As seen in Example 2, instead of beginning on C (and subsequently the tonic), Brahms begins the theme on the third degree of the scale and then repeats it on the customary C pitch. However, instead of returning to A to complete the theme, he descends to G, alluding to the fact that Clara is- indeed- not his. Nonetheless, that the primary theme of the quartet spells her name is a double indication that Brahms attributes- however depressing- his thoughts of suicide to Clara.

Example 2. Clara motif, mm. 5-10, first movement. N.B.: as the key is C-minor, there are three flats in the key signature (missing here). 14

James M. Keller, Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 112.


In measure 53, once modulating to Eb Major, Brahms utilizes the technique of theme and variation, a hallmark of Classical era composition. Following the Development-which begins in the parallel minor to the relative major seen immediately before- the recapitulation returns with the sighing motifs seen at the beginning of the movement. With the return of the primary theme comes the aforementioned major dominant tonality, which represents a stark tonal contrast to previously composed chamber music works. So revolutionary was this implementation that it is believed that this is the only sonata-form movement in a minor key in which the recapitulation is in the key of the major dominant.15 The resulting tonal ambiguity leads to an ominous and indiscernible final cadence. Beginning also in C minor, the second movement of the quartet- Scherzo- is one of the most controversial pieces in Brahms’s entire repertory. Tonally intricate and structurally complex, the second movement is made innately unconventional by its mere placement in the opus. The scherzo- especially in the Classical era- took the place of the minuet, which was nearly always the third movement in a chamber piece. British musical analyst and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey included Brahms’s C-minor piano quartet in his famous Essays in Musical Analysis, published in six volumes from 1935 to 1939. In his essay, Sir Donald argued that Brahms needed to put the scherzo immediately after the first movement- in addition to having it be in the same key- because the second movement added “…the tonal balance unprovided for by the end of the first movement.”16 In this movement, Brahms uses the technique of “development variation” on the primary theme when played by the piano; indeed, this technique was well in


Grove Music Online, s.v. “Johannes Brahms: Chamber Music” (by Walter Frisch), (accessed December 5, 2015) 16

Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 210.


place during the Classical era.17 The melodic ideas presented in this movement are inversions of the descending chromatic motifs seen in the first movement, and the dominance of C minor is evident, despite momentary modulations and frequent chromatic alterations. On this, Smith writes, “The omnipresence of C minor in relation to the suddenly attenuated dominant has the effect of tightening the grip of C-minor despair applied by the first movement’s coda.”18 The transition back to the scherzo from the B section is regarded as “Brahms’s longest and most agonizingly tense retransition,” due to nearly ninety bars of nonstop tonal ambiguity and extreme rhythmic complexity.19 In the narrative of the quartet, this is representative of the firm hold these suicidal thoughts had on Brahms- unrelenting, unyielding, and uncompromising. The third movement- Andante, in modified ternary form- is in the key of E major; indeed, it is the only movement of the quartet that is not in C minor.20 Beginning with a strikingly beautiful primary theme played by the cello with piano accompaniment, the first few systems of the third movement is- while lush- unassuming and seemingly stable. However, the listener identifies the slightly disjunctive nature of E major, which- tonally speaking- is no way near C minor. Brahms immediately feeds off this uneasiness by incorporating the lowered sixth-scale degree (C natural), while maintaining a heavy reiteration of the tonic. This tonal instability interrupts the dreamy nature of E major, a reminder than even in far-off reality (perhaps a dream 17

This exact term was coined by Arnold Schoenberg who- according to Ethan Haimo in his Schoenberg’s Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method: 1914-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)believed it was widely used in compositions since 1750. In Leonard Stein’s article “Bach, 1950,” (from Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg) Schoenberg defined ‘developing variation’ as “Music of the homophonic-melodic style of composition, that is, music with a main theme, accompanied by and based on harmony, produces its material by, as I call it, developing variation. This means that variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and every needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece.” 18

Smith, 14.


ibid., 15.


Modified ternary form: ABCA’ with coda.


during sleep) Brahms’s still cannot escape from the ever-present biding of his suicidal thoughts. Clothed amidst normally-sonorous thirds, Brahms includes the C natural amidst augmented triads under the main melody, adding further tonal and subsequently cognitive frustration. Only after establishing a nearly incomprehensible tonal landscape (especially for nineteenth-century listeners), Brahms’s finally relents with a restatement of the primary theme to remind listenersand to remind himself- that he has not yet given in to the haunting C minor pull into complete and total darkness. The fourth movement is dense in content and difficult to analyse, both tonally and rhythmically. In sonata-allegro form, Allegro comodo begins in C minor with an Eb major secondary subject. Once again paying homage to the greats of the chamber music world, Brahms quotes Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66, and the “Fate theme” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (also in C minor). The movement begins with unique themes in both the violin and piano, which become inverted during the Development. After exploring B and D minor key areas, what is most notable in this movement is the recapitulation, in which the tonality pulls to G minor and, ultimately, to C major. This striking and brief modulation to C major- the parallel major to the primary tonic- provides a stark and crucial plot twist in the narrative of the quartet. C minor- the key of hopelessness, desolation, and suicide- for a moment gets blasted aside by C major. Despite returning to C minor soon thereafter, a monumental inference can be made with this paramount though albeit brief change to C major: Brahms- while thinking about it- had no real or burning desire to kill himself. The greatly fulfilling element of studying composers who have passed is that we have accounts of their life. Thus, we know that Brahms never did commit suicide, and he died at the age of 63 by natural causes.


Johannes Brahms is responsible for some of greatest compositions in Western music. With one foot in the past and another in the future, Brahms revolutionised musical compositional by combining two of the most successful styles in Western music: Classicism and Romanticism. Brahms found immense personal freedom within Classical structure, and used that structure to house highly cathartic and crippling emotion in the guise of tonal and rhythmic complexity. Adding to the chimes of Watson, Schauffler, and Smith, Robert Pascall adds, “It is possible to view his [Brahms’s] music as an integration of the Haydn-Beethoven tradition of dynamic argument and dramatic power with the Mozart-Schubert tradition of relaxed lyricism and serene beauty.” Pascall continues, “chamber music was also a vehicle of autobiography for Brahms. Some of the musical material in this intimate genre flowed, suitably enough, from his circle of intimates.”21 While we cannot rejoice in the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Cminor piano quartet, Op. 60, we can certainly appreciate the calibre of musical composition that came from such an intimate and extremely dire time in Brahms’s life. It is true- without a doubtthat Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven revolutionised chamber music and made it into a heightened form of art music. The beautiful and unique reality is that Brahms had no intention of “bettering” the art form. He simply used the genre to express- to vent, even- what could have never been said, or acted upon. Werther in Goethe’s narrative did indeed kill himself. That was not Brahms’s fate and, even if it was, and the futility of it would be proven by the longevity of life in his musical compositions.

21 Robert Pascall, “Ruminations on Brahms’s Chamber Music,” The Musical Times, vol. 116 (1975), 697.


Bibliography Frisch, Walter. S.v. “Johannes Brahms: Chamber Music.” Grove Music Online. (accessed December 5, 2015). Gál, Hans. Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality. New York: Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 1963. Kalbeck, Max. Johannes Brahms. Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1913-1922. Keller, James M. Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pascall, Robert. “The Ruminations on Brahms’s Chamber Music.” The Musical Times, vol. 116 (1975): 697. Schumann, Eugenie. The Schumanns and Johannes Brahms: The Memoirs of Eugenie Schumann. Lawrence: Music Book Society, 1927. Smith, Peter H. Expressive Forms in Brahms’s Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Watston, Sara Ruth. “The Romantic Brahms.” The American Scholar 1, vol. 14 (1947-48): 69. Webster, James. “Schubert’s Sonata Form and Brahms’s First Maturity.” 19th century music 2 (1979): 3.


Brahms's Werther Quartet and the Art of Chamber Music  

Zen Kuriyama, 2015.

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