Work Name: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60 Key: C minor Form: Piano Quartet Composer: Johannes Brahms Year(s): Began in 1855 and completed the score in 1875 Period: Romantic Catalogue Number: Op. 60
For Complete Scores of
Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.3, Op.60
The Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, completed by Johannes Brahms in 1875, sometimes called the “Werther” Quartet, is scored for piano, violin, viola and cello.
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Scherzo: Allegro
IV. Finale: Allegro Comodo
Gagliano Ensemble, St Peter’s Church, London, Belsize Park, 7th July 2012
Brahms began work on his C minor piano quartet (for violin, viola, cello and piano) in 1855 and completed the score in 1875. Even for Brahms, this two-decades long period of writing, rewriting, setting aside and returning to a single work sets a record. Much ink has been spilled over the time allotted Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, first sketched in 1862, but not finished until 1876. The period spent on the C minor piano quartet trumps this by six years. (The symphony, too, is in C minor. Could this key, with its background of tragic grandeur, have posed special expressive challenges for the composer?)
In 1853, 20-year-old Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann. The young composer gloried in the accolades he received from his famous senior, justly renowned for critical acumen as well as innovative compositions, then promptly fell in love with his wife. Though Clara’s feelings for Brahms were apparently more of the maternal ilk – she was 14 years his senior – Johannes carried the flame all his days, and the two remained friends long after Robert’s death from syphilis in 1856. When Clara died in 1896, Brahms, who’d never married, grew ill almost immediately, and died before another 12 months had passed.
Brahms’ feelings for Clara, as well as the tragedy of Robert’s 1854 bout of syphilis-induced mental illness, must have been much on the composer’s mind when he started this piece, as perhaps when he finished it, for this is what he wrote to his publisher upon submitting the score for print:
“You might display a picture on the title page. Namely a head – with a pistol pointing at it. Now you can form an idea of the music! I will send you my photograph for this purpose! You could also give it a blue frockcoat, yellow trousers, and riding boots, since you appear to like color printing.”
The gun to the head, as well as the blue frockcoat and yellow trousers, refer to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel ubiquitous to the 19th century. Its plot concerns a young man who kills himself over the unrequited love of a good friend’s wife. Surely Brahms saw himself as the protagonist, though he chose to depict his suicide in notes rather than enact it literally.
Evidence points to Brahms writing early versions of the first and third movements in C-sharp minor, before turning to C minor after a disastrous reading of those movements in 1856. The final product is as dark as any of Brahms’ chamber music. . . .