Several of Brahms’s major works started life as sonatas for two pianos, and assumed their final forms later. This is true of the First Piano Concerto (whose original two piano version is lost) and the Haydn Variations. The case of the Piano Quintet is more complicated because the two piano version was preceded by yet another incarnation, for string quintet. This early form, which was the only time Brahms followed Schubert’s string quintet scoring (with two cellos) as opposed to Mozart’s (with two violas), is lost, but the Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, is a staple in the repertoire of all two piano teams. Brahms’s lifelong friend, the great pianist Clara Schumann, played it through with conductor Hermann Levi, and subsequently wrote to the composer:
It is masterly from every point of view, but — it is not a sonata, but a work whose ideas you might — and must — scatter over an entire orchestra….Levi….said the same thing, very decidedly, without my having said a word….Please, for this once take my advice and recast it.
Brahms did recast the work, but not for orchestra. Reluctant to let go of the piano sound, he decided in favor of the piano quintet. It was in this form that Op. 34 was published in 1865 and became a classic of chamber music literature. (The two piano version was published six years later.)
The Piano Quintet bursts with energy, power, and that serious yet never austere bearing so characteristic of Brahms. The four movements are extremely contrasted yet they are connected through subtle motivic links. The first movement’s dark unison opening theme generates much of the musical material of the entire work. This Allegro non troppo is unrelentingly dramatic, only occasionally tempered by the gentle lyricism of a second theme. Unusual tonal relationships—with the movement’s secondary key a half step higher than expected—increase the intensity of the musical processes.
The Andante, un poco adagio that follows is a calm, songlike movement in a regular A – B – A form that, with its sweet parallel thirds and sixths, is like a Romantic dream. Yet even here, the harmonic movement “overshoots the mark” by a half step (going from A-flat major to E major, not the expected E-flat), giving the music an extra edge of tension.
The third movement, now mysterious, now heroic in mood, was described as “perhaps the most ‘demonic’ of Brahms scherzi” by Malcolm MacDonald, author of an excellent survey of Brahms’s life and work. The scherzo is characterized by an irresistible rhythmic drive that persists even in the Trio, where the gloomy C minor tonality temporarily changes to major.
The finale opens with a remarkable Poco sostenuto introduction, described by MacDonald as “numb, ghostly string figures groping their way in glacial imitation into perhaps the most emotionally afflicted music the work has yet encompassed.” The fast tempo arrives with a serene and relaxed main theme that, however, alternates with stormier episodes. Near the end, the music again assumes the impassioned tone of the first movement. © Peter Laki
Mendelssohn wrote his Octet in 1825, the same year Beethoven composed his String Quartet in B-flat major (Op. 130) which originally ended with the Great Fugue. At 55, Beethoven was nearing the end of his career; the 16-year-old Mendelssohn was just starting his. Much ink has been spilled over who was ‟modern” and who was ‟conservative,” who was ‟Classical” and who was ‟Romantic.” Mendelssohn never tried to explode Classical forms the way Beethoven did in his late quartets, filled with unconventional movement sequences and dramatic interruptions. Yet the younger composer infused those traditional forms with a new energy in ways that were absolutely unheard of. He invented a whole new genre with his Octet, which calls for what can be considered either a large chamber group or a small orchestra. Mendelssohn noted in his manuscript:
This Octet must be played by all instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.
Yet there were really no other ‟pieces of this character” to speak of. True, Louis Spohr had written some works for eight string players, but those were double quartets, conceived as dialogs between two separate groups. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, treated his eight players as a single, integrated unit, which was a totally unprecedented compositional approach.
As for the young prodigy’s melodic style, one need only compare the Octet’s opening with the ‟sunrise” theme at the beginning of Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4 (1796-97). Mendelssohn was apparently inspired by that opening, but Haydn’s theme is to Mendelssohn’s what a sunrise would be to a solar flare. The Octet begins with a true stroke of genius, and the continuation is in every way worthy of that exceptional opening.
In all four movements, Classical gestures are similarly magnified and expanded upon. The second movement, in C minor, begins and ends in a gentle pianissimo, evoking a nocturnal mood, but there are some extremely powerful emotional outbursts in between. The third movement is the first in a long line of Mendelssohnian scherzos in a very fast tempo and of a light and impish character. It is cast in a modified sonata form, and is therefore not really a scherzo, structurally speaking. Felix didn’t take the time to relax in a contrasting trio section as one might have expected in a scherzo. In the concluding Presto, finally, the young composer pulled out all the stops. He wrote a brilliant fugue, as a bow to the music of the Baroque which he had already begun to study and which would play such an important role in his later life. The quote from Handel’s Messiah (‟And He shall reign for ever and ever”) cannot be missed. But there is also plenty of playfulness in the movement, along with some harmonic surprises that would have made Handel—and probably Beethoven, too—raise his eyebrows in disbelief, mixed with admiration. © 2023 Peter Laki
Kian Ravaei, The Little Things
All seven titles which comprise The Little Things come from Emily Dickinson, who never fails to direct our attention toward nature’s easily overlooked wonders. Movements II, III, IV, and VI evoke various animal life, while I and V portray the sun and moon respectively. The order of the movements suggests the cyclic journey of all living things from morning to night to a new morning.
In the final movement, we hear the voice of Nature singing Dickinson’s famous lines:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.