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At the Intersection of Public and Private Musical Life: Brahms's Op. 51 String Quartets

  • Marie Sumner Lott


Brahms's dedication of his op. 51 string quartets (1873) to the surgeon Theodor Billroth provides a window into Brahms's musico-political views in the 1870s that has hitherto been unexplored by music scholars. Analysis of correspondence, performance traditions and the scores of these two quartets demonstrates that Brahms chose to align himself and his works with the learned connoisseurs of the domestic chamber-music-making tradition, represented by Billroth and his frequent musical soirées. Brahms's music also shows the influence of Joseph Joachim, his oldest and dearest friend and Europe's premier chamber musician. Brahms's compositional choices in these two works combine public and private musical styles, to offer a touching memorial to earlier composers and friends, and to provide a teachable moment for the musical public.


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1 Brahms to Joachim, October 1873; Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, ed. Styra Avins, trans. Josef Eisinger and Styra Avins (Oxford and New York, 1997), 458.

2 For a detailed account of Billroth's life, see Karel Absolon, The Surgeon's Surgeon: Theodor Billroth, 1829–1894, 4 vols. (Lawrence, KS, 1979–89). For a chronicle of his friendship with Brahms, see Johannes Brahms and Theodor Billroth: Letters from a Musical Friendship, ed. and trans. Hans Barkan (Norman, OK, 1957). Barkan's collection includes all the letters originally published by Otto Gottlieb-Billroth in Billroth und Brahms im Briefwechsel (Berlin and Vienna, 1935) with additional letters not available to Gottlieb-Billroth at the time of his publication.

3 Brahms to Billroth, dated by Billroth ‘July 1873’; Johannes Brahms, ed. Avins, 455–6. Except where indicated, italics in quotations throughout this article are in the original. As Avins explains, Brahms's ‘droll little ulterior motive’ and use of quotation marks around the words ‘sextet-player’ make a playful joke at Billroth's expense. Early in their friendship, Billroth planned to perform the second viola part in a private reading of Brahms's G major String Sextet in the presence of the composer. He became so nervous during the first movement that he required a replacement, which amused Brahms greatly. Billroth explained the embarrassing incident in a letter to his and Brahms's mutual friend Wilhelm Lübke, reproduced in full in Johannes Brahms and Theodor Billroth, ed. Barkan, 6.

4 For more information on Joachim's role in the development of public chamber-music events, see Tully Potter, ‘From Chamber to Concert Hall’, Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, ed. Robin Stowell (Cambridge, 2003), 41–59. Beatrix Borchard has recently suggested that Joachim intended, with his subscription concerts and other activities as director of the Berlin Hochschule für Ausübende Tonkunst, to educate the public and promote imperial nation-building by enriching the musical establishment of the capital city. As such, his programming practices differed in significant ways from those of his contemporary Joseph Hellmesberger in Vienna. See Beatrix Borchard, ‘Quartettspiel und Kulturpolitik im Berlin der Kaiserzeit: Das Joachim-Quartett’, Der ‘männliche’ und der ‘weibliche’ Beethoven, ed. Cornelia Bartsch et al. (Bonn, 2003), 369–98.

5 A representative sample of previous studies of Brahms's quartets includes Rainer Wilke, Brahms, Reger, Schoenberg: Streichquartette: Motivisches-thematisches Prozesse und formale Gestalt, Schriftenreihe zur Musik, 18 (Hamburg, 1980); Walter Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1984); and three articles in Brahms 2: Biographical, Documentary, and Analytical Studies, ed. Michael Musgrave (Cambridge, 1987): Michael Musgrave and Robert Pascall, ‘The String Quartets Op. 51 No. 1 in C Minor and No. 2 in A Minor: A Preface’, 137–44; Arnold Whittall, ‘Two of a Kind? Brahms's Op. 51 Finales’, 145–64; and Allen Forte, ‘Motivic Design and Structural Levels in the First Movement of Brahms's String Quartet in C Minor’, 165–96. David Huron responded to Allen Forte's analysis of op. 51 no. 1 with a refined form of motivic analysis; see Huron, ‘What is a Feature? Forte's Analysis of Op. 51 No. 1 Revisited’, Music Theory Online, 7/4 (July 2001; <>).

6 Leon Botstein, ‘Brahms and his Audience: The Later Viennese Years, 1875–1897’, Cambridge Companion to Brahms, ed. Michael Musgrave (Cambridge, 1999), 51–75.

7 For more information on Brahms's early reputation as a composer of song and chamber music, see Adolf Schubring's 1862 assessment: Schubring (trans. Walter Frisch), ‘Five Early Works by Brahms’, Brahms and his World, 2nd, rev. edn, ed. Walter Frisch and Kevin Karnes (Princeton, NJ, 2009), 165–215. Frisch contextualizes Schubring's insightful study of Brahms's works in relation to contemporaneous musical politics in his ‘Brahms and Schubring: Musical Politics at Mid-Century’, 19th-Century Music, 7 (1983–4), 271–81. Schubring situated Brahms as the stellar genius of a ‘Schumann School’ alongside his talented contemporaries Joachim, Bargiel, Ritter and Kirchner. This group of composers worked in the middle ground between two poles then developing in musical life: ‘those who place the emphasis on the old form’ (that is, true conservatives) and those who emphasized ‘the new content’ (the New German School). In writing this analytical critique of the young composer's first 18 publications, Schubring offered a counterweight to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik's polemical writings in favour of the New German School gathered around Liszt and Wagner. As Frisch notes, Schubring's analysis represents ‘the best kind of musical criticism: [Schubring's writings] are based on careful analysis of the musical techniques […] yet go beyond mere structural analysis to assess the success or failure of those techniques’ (p. 276).

8 Biographer Jan Swafford discusses the work's success immediately following the April 1868 première in Bremen: ‘Reinthaler [music director at Bremen Cathedral and a strong advocate of Brahms's music] repeated the work in Bremen a few weeks later, and during the next year it was done twenty times across Germany. From there it spread to Russia and England and Paris and to choral groups around the West, in an age when there were able and enthusiastic amateur groups everywhere.’ Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (New York, 1997), 331. Brahms himself noted, in a letter to the publisher Rieter-Biedermann, that the work was practical because ‘every movement can be done alone’. See Margit McCorkle, Johannes Brahms: Thematisch-bibliographisches Werkverzeichnis (Munich, 1984), 171.

9 Brahms had been working on symphonic movements and sketches that would become the First Symphony since at least 1862, possibly earlier, and he reworked some materials into various non-symphonic compositions throughout the late 1850s and 1860s. See, for example, David Brodbeck's discussion of this long compositional process in his Brahms, Symphony No. 1, op. 67 (Cambridge, 1997), esp. Chapter 1 (‘Frustrated Efforts’, pp. 1–15).

10 This ‘War of the Romantics’, to use Alan Walker's term, pitted self-styled ‘progressives’, who supported Liszt and Wagner early in the century and/or Bruckner later in the century, against composers and performers they deemed ‘conservative’, musicians like Brahms and Joachim, backed by critics such as Eduard Hanslick. See Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, 3 vols. (New York, 1983–96), ii: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861 (1987), esp. pp. 338–67. In 1870s Vienna, the younger generation of Bruckner supporters (for example, Wolf and Mahler) saw Brahms and his circle as a roadblock to the musical progress they hoped to foster.

11 Botstein, ‘Brahms and his Audience’, 55. On the development of ‘serious’ music in German aesthetics and criticism, see David Gramit, ‘Selling the Serious: The Commodification of Music and Resistance to it in Germany, circa 1800’, The Musician as Entrepreneur, 1700–1914: Managers, Charlatans, and Idealists, ed. William Weber (Bloomington, IN, 2004), 81–101. On the aesthetics of ‘Trivialmusik’, see Studien zur Trivialmusik des 19. Jahrhunderts, ed. Carl Dahlhaus (Regensburg, 1967), and Dahlhaus (trans. Uli Sailer), ‘Trivial Music and Aesthetic Judgement’, Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, ed. Christopher Washburne and Maiken Derno (New York, 2004), 333–62.

12 Subscription concerts featuring chamber music, however, frequently included women listeners, and these exclusive affairs also occurred in the semi-public or semi-private sphere. They were advertised and reviewed in newspapers and journals, but were accessible only to a select group of patrons who held season or, in some cases, lifelong memberships. See Christina Bashford, ‘Learning to Listen: Audiences for Chamber Music in Early-Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 4 (1999), 25–51, and eadem, The Pursuit of High Culture: John Ella and Chamber Music in Victorian London (Woodbridge, 2007).

13 The geographical location (outside the home, in public–private spaces) also ensured that chamber-music playing remained a ‘manly’ activity for much of the nineteenth century. As the private domestic sphere became increasingly associated with women and femininity in the nineteenth century, men sought out spaces in which to interact with their social and cultural peers without appearing idle or emasculated. In German-speaking realms, the need for semi-private male sociability in associations and clubs resulted in an increase in Masonic and other lodge cultures and ‘secret societies’. See Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, ‘Civility, Male Friendship, and Masonic Sociability in Nineteenth-Century Germany’, Gender and History, 13 (2001), 224–48. Music's association with femininity further complicates this perception. On the effects of these social mores on chamber-music performance and vice versa in Britain, see Christina Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 63 (2010), 291–360.

14 Louis Spohr, Louis Spohr's Autobiography, Translated from the German (London, 1865; repr. New York, 1969), 150.

15 The division between ‘serious’ or ‘high’ music and ‘lighter’ styles is also apparent in concert programming and the development of special concert series for popular works (primarily for voice and/or orchestra). See William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms (Cambridge, 2008), esp. the Introduction (pp. 1–9) and Chapters 8 and 9 (‘Classical Music Achieves Hegemony’, pp. 235–72, and ‘Vocal Music for the General Public’, pp. 273–300).

16 The division between ‘serious’ or ‘high’ music and ‘lighter’ styles is also apparent in concert programming and the development of special concert series for popular works (primarily for voice and/or orchestra). See William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms (Cambridge, 2008), esp. the Introduction (pp. 1–9) and Chapters 8 and 9 (‘Classical Music Achieves Hegemony’, pp. 235–72, and ‘Vocal Music for the General Public’, pp. 122–40.

17 William Weber, Music and the Middle Class: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris, and Vienna between 1830 and 1848 (2nd edn, Aldershot, 2004). On Paris specifically, see Jeffrey Cooper, The Rise of Instrumental Music and Concert Series in Paris, 1828–1871 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1983), and Joël-Marie Fauquet, Les sociétés de musique de chambre à Paris de la Restauration à 1870 (Paris, 1986).

18 The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde sponsored a regular series of orchestral and vocal concerts in the imperial palace, and smaller Abendunterhaltungen (evening entertainments) that featured chamber music in private homes and other small venues. The Viennese Concerts Spirituels were modelled after their Parisian counterpart and sponsored by an amateur organization. Alice Hanson notes that they ‘specialized in the performance of sacred choral music and symphonies’. Hanson, Musical Life in Biedermeier Vienna (Cambridge, 1985), 97.

19 See Cecelia Hopkins Porter, ‘The Reign of the Dilettanti: Düsseldorf from Mendelssohn to Schumann’, Musical Quarterly, 73 (1989), 476–512.

20 On the apparent decline in musical literacy during this time, see Leon Botstein, ‘Listening through Reading: Musical Literacy and the Concert Audience’, 19th-Century Music, 16 (1992–3), 129–45. Botstein describes a trajectory from the expectation that trained amateurs could sing from notation and do a little composing, to an emphasis on reproducing music at the piano, and later to reading about music in newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century. Bashford (‘Historiography and Invisible Musics’) notes that this trajectory does not take into account the possibility of string-music performances occurring in private quarters; some evidence indicates that public concerts of chamber music promoted more and better performances in the home. This discrepancy points to the need for greater nuance in our understanding of nineteenth-century musical culture – certainly it is possible that chamber music and piano music represent opposing trends in musical life.

21 On the re-evaluation of Renaissance figures during the Romantic era, see James Garrett, ‘Prophets Looking Backwards: German Romantic Historicism and the Representation of Renaissance Music’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 125 (2000), 164–204; idem, Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination: Interpreting Historicism in Nineteenth-Century Music (Cambridge, 2002); and Paula Higgins, ‘The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 57 (2004), 443–510. On nineteenth-century historicism in relation to Brahms and his contemporaries, see Christoph Wolff, ‘Brahms, Wagner, and the Problem of Historicism in Nineteenth-Century Music’, Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives, ed. George Bozarth (Oxford and New York, 1990), 7–11.

22 The foremost scholar of London's chamber-music concerts is Christina Bashford; see especially ‘Learning to Listen’ and The Pursuit of High Culture.

23 In 1852, the Société des Jeunes Artistes du Conservatoire established a similar series devoted to the performance of accepted masterworks as well as new compositions, leading to greater familiarity with the Viennese Classicists and early Romantics among musicians and audiences in Paris. Gordon A. Anderson et al., ‘Paris’, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, <> (accessed 24 January 2012), and Cooper, The Rise of Instrumental Music and Concert Series in Paris, 42–6.

24 Other societies with the specific goal of promoting Beethoven's works also cropped up in Paris at this time. See Fauquet, Les sociétés de musique de chambre à Paris, Chapter 2 (‘L'apostolat Beethovenien’, pp. 115–45).

25 Botstein, ‘Brahms and his Audience’, 61.

26 Elizabeth Way Sullivan has documented the development of public chamber-music concerts and programming practices, as well as the political overtones of these developments, in late nineteenth-century Vienna: ‘Conversing in Public: Chamber Music in Vienna, 1890–1910’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2001).

27 Mark Evan Bonds has proposed that Mozart's op. 10 quartets, with their famous dedication, were designed specifically to position the genre as the outlet for the highest form of musical discourse and communication among like-minded composers and performers. His dedication and the quartets themselves serve to exemplify the type of work that was to be promoted, in contrast to the more popular style of his contemporary Ignaz Pleyel. Mark Evan Bonds, ‘Replacing Haydn: Mozart's “Pleyel” Quartets’, Music and Letters, 88 (2007), 201–25. Thus, in effect, Mozart's efforts with this set of six quartets attempt to solve the same problem plaguing Brahms almost a century later; Brahms's solution bears striking similarities to Mozart's, using both musical style and the dedication to combat prevailing trends in musical performance.

28 On Beethoven's late quartets and their changing reception in the nineteenth century, see K. M. Knittel, ‘From Chaos to History: The Reception of Beethoven's Late Quartets’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1992); eadem, ‘Wagner, Deafness, and the Reception of Beethoven's Late Style’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 51 (1998), 49–82; and eadem, ‘“Late”, Last, and Least: On Being Beethoven's Quartet in F Major, Op. 135’, Music and Letters, 87 (2006), 16–51.

29 Bashford, ‘Learning to Listen’, 29–31. Elizabeth Way Sullivan (see n. 26) also addresses the public/private split and its influence on performance and reception of string chamber music later in the century in Vienna.

30 For a discussion of the domestic string style favoured by popular composers such as Kuhlau, Onslow and Spohr, see Marie Sumner Lott, ‘Changing Audiences, Changing Styles: String Chamber Music and the Industrial Revolution’, Instrumental Music and the Industrial Revolution, ed. Roberto Illiano and Luca Sala (Bologna, 2010), 175–239.

31 Walter Frisch has described the new tone of these works in similar terms: ‘The luxuriance of opp. 25, 26, and 34 and the spaciousness of their thematic-harmonic-formal processes become reduced to a style of extreme concentration.’ Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, 111. On ‘musical logic’, see Margaret Notley, ‘Discourse and Allusion: The Chamber Music of Brahms’, Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, ed. Stephen E. Hefling (New York, 1998), 255–62, and eadem, Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism (Oxford, 2007).

32 Schoenberg, ‘Brahms the Progressive’, Style and Idea, ed. Dika Newlin (New York, 1950), 51–101 (p. 58).

33 Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, 114. Frisch notes in a beautifully effective analysis that the placement of the three-note motive on scale degrees 8–♭6–5 in bars 11, 13, 15 and 17 creates the impression of B minor in bar 20, when we hear the same motive on what would be 3–1–♯7 in G major.

34 Frisch, Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation, 114. Frisch notes in a beautifully effective analysis that the placement of the three-note motive on scale degrees 8–♭6–5 in bars 11, 13, 15 and 17 creates the impression of B minor in bar 20, when we hear the same motive on what would be 3–1–♯7 in G major.

35 In this regard, the listener or score reader becomes a participant in the musical event, actively ‘musicking’, to use Christopher Small's term. See Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middleton, CT, 1998). The history of this change in European art-music culture has been the subject of much debate since James H. Johnson published Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1995). William Weber has approached the question from the perspective of programming; see The Great Transformation of Musical Taste. Bashford, on the other hand, has favoured evidence from concert society organizers and attendees, where that is available for London.

36 Simrock, an especially sympathetic publisher, printed nearly all of Brahms's works in score and parts simultaneously. Publishers such as Hofmeister, Peters and Schlesinger frequently lost money on chamber-music publications unless or until the work proved popular enough to sell at least three subsequent reprintings, according to archival documents in Leipzig and Frankfurt am Main. I have examined the Druckbücher (print logs) and Plattenverzeichnis (listing of printing plates) for Berlin-based Schlesinger, currently housed at the Robert Lienau publishing firm in Frankfurt am Main, and for Leipzig-based Peters and Breitkopf & Härtel at the Sachsisches Staatsarchiv in Leipzig.

37 John Daverio discusses Schumann's insistence on publishing the full score in terms of the difficulty of performing these works, particularly in comparison with contemporaneous works (such as Mendelssohn's op. 44 quartets). Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a ‘New Poetic Age’ (Oxford, 1997), 254–5.

38 On the history of the miniature score, see Cecil Hopkinson, ‘The Earliest Miniature Scores’, Music Review, 32 (1972), 138–44; Rita Benton, ‘Pleyel's Bibliothèque Musicale’, Music Review, 35 (1975), 1–4; and Hans Lenneberg, ‘Revising the History of the Miniature Score’, Notes, 45 (1988–9), 258–61. The French composer George Onslow (1784–1853) composed more than 70 chamber works for strings (quartets and quintets), which were very popular in the nineteenth century among both performers and critics. Robert Schumann, for instance, singled them out for high praise alongside those of Felix Mendelssohn. Schumann, ‘Preisquartett von Julius Schapler’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 16 (1842), 142–3, as quoted in Plantinga, Schumann as Critic (New Haven, CT, and London, 1967), 187. The most recent study of Onslow's life and works is Baudime Jam's George Onslow (Clermont-Ferrand, 2003), but Viviane Niaux's George Onslow: Gentleman Compositeur (Clermont-Ferrand, 2003) delves more significantly into matters of musical style. For analysis of the chamber music specifically, see Christiana Nobach, Untersuchungen zu George Onslows Kammermusik (Kassel, 1985).

39 The Hofmeister–Whistling catalogues also document newly printed works throughout much of the nineteenth century for Austro-Germany. They are available in their entirety as a searchable database and as pdfs at <> (accessed 20 January 2012).

40 Schumann describes Brahms sitting at the piano and playing ‘sonatas, rather disguised symphonies, songs […] then sonatas for violin and piano, string quartets – and each so different from the others that they each appeared to gush from a different source’. Robert Schumann, ‘Neue Bahnen’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 39/19 (28 October 1853), repr. in Schumann, Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker, ed. Martin Kreisig, 2 vols. (5th edn, Leipzig, 1914), ii, 301–2, trans. Piero Weiss, Music in the Western World (2nd edn, Belmont, CA, 2008), 307. Schumann's article laid the foundation for the critical reception of Brahms's works in the second half of the nineteenth century, and twentieth-century scholars have discussed its messianic language at length. See Malcolm MacDonald, Brahms (New York, 1990), 18–19; Swafford, Johannes Brahms, 83–8; and Mark Evan Bonds, After Beethoven: The Imperative of Originality in the Symphony (Cambridge, MA, 1997), Chapter 5 (‘The Ideology of Genre: Brahms's First Symphony’, pp. 138–74), esp. pp. 141–3.

41 It is not clear whether these symphonies and quartets truly existed in 1853–4 or whether Schumann was imagining them from the style of the piano sonatas and other works Brahms had discussed with him. Certainly for the musical world it seemed as though Brahms lost his nerve, as the early published works included nothing in the ‘noble’ genres of symphony and quartet. See Adolf Schubring, ‘Schumanniana No. 4: The Present Musical Epoch and Robert Schumann's Position in Music History’, trans. John Michael Cooper, Schumann and his World, ed. R. Larry Todd (Princeton, NJ, 1994), 362–74. Walter Frisch discusses the nature and effect of this critique in ‘Brahms and Schubring’.

42 Michael Musgrave and Robert Pascall provide an excellent account of this history in ‘The String Quartets Op. 51 No. 1 in C minor and No. 2 in A minor’. The authors also note that the opus number for these quartets places them alongside works from autumn 1869, suggesting that Brahms had the quartets in mind for publication at that point and reserved the opus number for them. Brahms noted in his own catalogue that the quartets were written ‘for the second time’ in the summer of 1873.

43 Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, 4 vols. (Tutzing, 1976), ii, 439, quoted in Musgrave and Pascall, ‘The String Quartets Op. 51 No. 1 in C minor and No. 2 in A minor’, 138.

44 See Leon Botstein's work on changing attitudes towards musical literacy across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially ‘Listening through Reading’.

45 Brahms to Billroth, July 1873; Johannes Brahms, ed. Avins, 456.

46 Michael Tusa has eloquently discussed Beethoven's obsession with this key in his early period and has posited that it held special meaning, extending even to the composer's structural conception of C minor works. For Beethoven, this key seems to have been specifically linked to Mozart and his works. See Michael Tusa, ‘Beethoven's C-Minor Mood’, Beethoven Forum 2, ed. Christopher Reynolds (Lincoln, NE, and London, 1993), 1–27.

47 See also works by the North German composer Norbert Burgmüller (1810–36), a friend and colleague of Mendelssohn whose music was much admired by Schumann, and by the Swedish iconoclast Franz Berwald (1796–1868). See my ‘Audience and Style in Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, c.1830 to 1880’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, 2008), 210–88.

48 Early critical responses to Beethoven's works are chronicled in Stefan Kunze, Ludwig van Beethoven: Die Werke im Spiegel seiner Zeit: Gesammelte Konzertberichte und Rezensionen bis 1830 (Laaber, 1996), and in The Critical Reception of Beethoven's Compositions by his German Contemporaries, ed. Wayne M. Senner, Robin Wallace and William Meredith (Lincoln, NE, and London, 1999). For modern commentary and analysis, see Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets, rev. edn (Westport, CT, 1982); Robin Wallace, ‘Background and Expression in the First Movement of Beethoven's Op. 132’, Journal of Musicology, 7 (1989), 3–20; and Leonard Ratner, The Beethoven String Quartets: Compositional Strategies and Rhetoric (Stanford, CA, 1995).

49 For an extended discussion of Beethoven's op. 132 quartet and four nineteenth-century responses to it, see Sumner Lott, ‘Audience and Style in Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music’, 219–88.

50 Quoted in Knittel, ‘From Chaos to History’, 72.

51 Knittel, ‘“Late”, Last, and Least’, 17.

52 Knittel discusses an especially strings-orientated passage from op. 135's Scherzo movement: ‘The piano reduction emphasizes the fact that the entire passage depends on string technique, of [sic] the repetition of that open a′ – the ease with which the first violin can simply tip down to that next string. The three lower instruments can play their motif in octaves with ease (no change of string is required) and, with their similar timbres, would blend together and form a background impossible to achieve (let alone play) on the piano. Like so much within the “late” quartets, this is string music’ (ibid., 23).

53 Many string chamber pieces of the earlier nineteenth century appear to have consciously catered to amateur audiences in works overtly marketed as ‘light’ (‘leicht’) or ‘easy’ and, in some cases, as ‘brilliant but not difficult’. In other cases, the musical style embraces repetitions and accessible techniques for amateur players without drawing attention to these features in their titles or advertisements. For more information about these works see Sumner Lott, ‘Audience and Style in Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music’, Chapters 1 and 2.

54 Brahms might also have known the A minor String Quartet of Norbert Burgmüller. Both Schumann's and Brahms's libraries contained works by him, though not copies of this quartet, and Schumann's moving paean to the composer on learning of his tragic death at the age of 26 indicates that he, like Mendelssohn, valued Burgmüller's music enough to perform and promote it. Brahms certainly knew some music by Spohr and other popular mid-century composers. He appears to have respected the achievement of such composers while seeking to turn in a different direction in his own work. In 1859, Brahms wrote to Auguste Brandt and Bertha Poubsky (members of his Hamburg women's chorus and lifelong friends), relating the news that he had just learnt of Spohr's death. Brahms notes: ‘He may well be the last one who still belonged to a more beautiful era of art than the one we are now suffering through.’ Johannes Brahms, ed. Avins, 203–4.

55 Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 581. In Chapter 10 (‘Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch’, pp. 569–98), Rosen discusses Mendelssohn's relationship to Beethoven's works and his borrowing of several Beethovenian features in the two string quartets opp. 12 and 13 (pp. 574–82). Also see Greg Vitercik, The Early Works of Felix Mendelssohn: A Study in the Romantic Sonata Style (Philadelphia, PA, 1992), esp. pp. 227–91; R. Larry Todd, ‘The Chamber Music of Mendelssohn’, Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, ed. Hefling, 170–207; and Thomas Schmidt-Beste, ‘Mendelssohn's Chamber Music’, The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, ed. Peter Mercer-Taylor (Cambridge, 2004), 130–48. Even more recently, Benedict Taylor has proposed a Proustian reading of Mendelssohn's op. 13 quartet; see his ‘Cyclic Form, Time, and Memory in Mendelssohn's A-Minor Quartet, Op. 13’, Musical Quarterly, 93 (2010), 45–89.

56 The most recent study of Schumann's chamber music is Linda Correll Roesner, ‘The Chamber Music’, The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, ed. Beate Perrey (Cambridge, 2007), 123–47, in which Roesner points out the works’ interrelationships and suggests that Schumann approached Classical formal and tonal principles ‘as gesture and rhetoric […] or as subterfuge’ (p. 123). Her discussion focuses on the ways in which these works demonstrate Schumann's respect for the genre and the ‘unique conception of musical form’ that they evince. She does not address Schumann's motives behind such innovative choices of key or formal structure.

57 See Julie Hedges Brown, ‘“A Higher Echo of the Past”: Schumann's 1842 Chamber Music and the Rethinking of Classical Form’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2000), esp. pp. 229–48, and Roesner, ‘The Chamber Music’.

58 Beethoven's op. 132 opens with an imitative treatment of a four-note motive that returns throughout the work and (in Daniel Chua's reading) connects it to the other ‘Galitzin’ Quartets. Daniel Chua, The ‘Galitzin’ Quartets of Beethoven: Opp. 127, 132, 130 (Princeton, NJ, 1995). Mendelssohn's op. 13 used the melody, particularly the opening motive, of his own song ‘Ist es wahr?’ in an introduction and final coda to provide a cyclical form in the work overall.

59 A final instance of the motto occurs in the closing 14 bars of the movement, as the learned style returns to end the work in a sombre, solemn manner.

60 Dillon R. Parmer, ‘Musical Meaning for the Few: Instances of Private Reception in the Music of Brahms’, Current Musicology, 83 (2007), 109–30. Parmer discusses instances of poetic inscriptions or associations (as in the early piano sonatas, the Piano Quartet op. 60 and the Violin Sonatas opp. 78 and 100) and musical allusions (as in the finale of the First Symphony) in relation to Brahms's tendency to give certain friends and colleagues oblique ‘clues’ to potential hidden meanings in these works.

61 Brahms attempted to control history by retrieving and burning his letters and sketches in order to ensure the integrity and privacy of his personal and professional life after his death. See Swafford, Johannes Brahms, 537–8.

62 For example, the young Felix Mendelssohn was commissioned to write a cantata commemorating the 300th anniversary of the artist's death for a lavish festival in April 1828. See R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford, 2003), 185–6. On the importance of new national and cultural monuments in German life at this time, see Hans A. Pohlsander, National Monuments and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Berne, 2010), esp. Chapter 5 (‘Monuments to German Culture’, pp. 103–28).

63 On the Bach revival, see Celia Applegate, Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the St Matthew Passion (Ithaca, NY, 2005).

64 In addition to his work on the new Schubert edition published in the 1870s and his work with Clara Schumann on the complete works of Robert Schumann, Brahms also edited for publication music by François Couperin, C. P. E. and W. F. Bach, Mozart and Chopin (see McCorkle, Johannes Brahms, 749–53). On his choral performances of early music, see Virginia Hancock, ‘Brahms's Performances of Early Choral Music’, 19th-Century Music, 8 (1984–5), 125–41, and eadem, ‘Brahms and Early Music: Evidence from his Library and his Choral Compositions’, Brahms Studies, ed. Bozarth, 29–48. On Brahms's musical nationalism and history, see Daniel Beller-McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit (Cambridge, MA, 2004), and for information on his multiple engagements with history, see Musik und Musikforschung: Johannes Brahms im Dialog mit der Geschichte, ed. Wolfgang Sandberger and Christiane Wiesenfeldt (Kassel, 2007).

65 Borchard notes that the Chaconne was the most frequently performed work in Joachim's repertory. Beatrix Borchard, Stimme und Geige: Amalie und Joseph Joachim (Vienna, 2005), esp. pp. 500–2. Joachim turned to the D minor Partita when giving impromptu performances (in addition to more mundane concert appearances and private soirées), such as the jubilee celebration of his fiftieth year of active concertizing in March 1889, when his biographer and student Andreas Moser reported: ‘As the applause was unceasing, Joachim at last took the fiddle from [Hugo] Olk's hands, as a sign that he would play his thanks to them, and with the words, “Let's return to Bach”, he put the fiddle under his chin and gave the Bach Chaconne in a way that he could hardly have surpassed in his earlier years.’ Moser, Joseph Joachim: A Biography (1831–1899), trans. Lilla Durham (London, 1901), 277.

66 Bartholf Senff published Brahms's arrangement without opus number as one of five ‘Studien für das Pianoforte’ in 1878. He designated the other works ‘Etude nach Fr. Chopin’, ‘Rondo nach C. M. v. Weber’, and ‘Presto nach J. S. Bach’ (in two separate versions). His use of the word ‘nach’ reflects the compositional freedoms Brahms took in these four arrangements. The Chaconne's title, however, reads ‘Chaconne von J. S. Bach für die linke Hand allein’, indicating perhaps Brahms's intent to transmit faithfully the original work in a pianistic version (see McCorkle, Johannes Brahms, 615–19).

67 Brahms to Clara Schumann, ‘Pörtschach, June 1877’; Johannes Brahms, ed. Avins, 515–16 (italic emphasis added).

68 John Daverio, Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms (Oxford, 2002), 54.

69 Mary Hunter has explored this notion in Haydn's piano trios and string quartets; see Hunter, ‘Haydn's London Piano Trios and his Salomon String Quartets: Private vs. Public?’, Haydn and his World, ed. Elaine Sisman (Princeton, NJ, 1997), 103–30.

70 Mendelssohn's op. 12 Canzonetta, like Brahms's Quasi Minuetto, opens in the minor mode (G minor) before moving on to the fairy music of the second section, in G major; the movement utilizes a simple song form (ABA′), as the title implies, rather than the elaborate sectional design that Brahms employs.

71 Brahms's previous Quasi-Menuetto movements, in the op. 38 Cello Sonata and the op. 16 Serenade, do not contain such abrupt shifts; the Cello Sonata's A minor movement is firmly in 3/4 metre, while the Serenade's D major movement is in 6/4. Both follow a standard ternary form, with the minuet followed by a contrasting trio (marked as such), and ending with a da capo repeat of the minuet.

72 Brahms was an active contributor to the first complete Chopin edition, working specifically on the Mazurkas, opp. 6, 7, 17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 59 and 63 (see McCorkle, Johannes Brahms, 750).

73 In two later works, Brahms also employs a succession of rapid style changes within a single inner movement, but these serve very different purposes from his use of reminiscences here. The middle movement of the three-movement F major Quintet, op. 88 (1882), combines elements of a slow movement with interruptions that evoke a scherzo, allowing Brahms to create an innovative formal hybrid. The A major Violin Sonata, op. 100 (1886), likewise utilizes a hybrid inner movement. In this earlier string quartet, however, Brahms writes four completely separate movements, and the Quasi Minuetto scherzo movement presents a commentary on the scherzo form rather than a completely new form.

74 In his 1876 assessment of the Brahms quartets, critic Hermann Deiters described the third movement in dreary terms: ‘An earnest and gloomy character perseveres also in the following movement […]. In the primary theme of the violin, to which the viola plays an independent theme, we recognize still a feeling of deep and lasting pressure in the harmonic pace and envision a dark, insecure mood; indeed an awakening from the dream of the foregoing movement [the “Romanze”], but an awakening to joyless reality’ (‘Einen ernsten und trüben Charakter bewahrt auch noch das folgende Stück […]. In der herrschenden Bewegung der Violine, zu welcher die Bratsche eine selbständige Bewegung ausführt, erkennen wir noch einen auf dem Gemüthe tief lastenden Druck, in den harmonischen Gängen, und Ausweichungen eine dunkle, unsichere Stimmung; zwar ein Aufwachen aus dem Traume des vorigen Stückes, aber ein Aufwachen zu freudeloser Wirklichkeit’). Hermann Deiters, ‘Streichquartette von Johannes Brahms’, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 13 (10, 17 and 24 July 1878), 438. Translation mine.

75 Deiters describes this section as ‘in a more appropriate affect’ (‘in entsprechender Bewegung’), presumably meaning more appropriate for a scherzo movement. Deiters, ‘Streichquartette von Johannes Brahms’, 438.

76 On the usual characteristics of the Biedermeier style in music, see Kenneth DeLong, ‘The Conventions of Musical Biedermeier’, Convention in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Music: Essays in Honor of Leonard G. Ratner, ed. Wye J. Allanbrook, Janet Levy and William Mahrt (Stuyvesant, NY, 1992), 195–223. DeLong also discusses the inherently nostalgic mode of this style, another element of memory and reminiscing at play in this quartet.

77 Brahms's interest in and familiarity with contemporaneous Beethoven scholarship – including his close friendship with the Beethoven biographer and sketch scholar Gustav Nottebohm – and his active participation in the mid-century Schubert revival, which involved performances and the creation of collected-works editions, suggest that his meditation on the stuff of history and reputation would have been quite consuming, and may well have found expression in this provocative string-quartet movement.

78 A few of Schubert's song-based chamber works were published and performed in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, such as the A minor String Quartet with music from Rosamunde (published as op. 29 no. 1 in 1824), the ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet (posthumous, 1829, as op. 114) and the D minor Quartet based on ‘Death and the Maiden’ (posthumous in 1831, without opus number).

79 Scott Messing, Schubert in the European Imagination, Eastman Studies in Music, 40, 2 vols. (Rochester, NY, 2007); see esp. i: The Romantic and Victorian Eras, Chapter 1 (‘Robert Schumann's Schubert: Inventing a Mädchencharakter’, pp. 8–55) and Chapter 2 (‘Disseminating a Mädchencharakter: Gendered Concepts of Schubert in German-Speaking Europe’, pp. 56–102). In ii: Fin de siècle Vienna, Messing explores the later manifestations of this reception tradition through Schoenberg.

80 Schumann and Mendelssohn had played a leading role in the discovery of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony (D.944) in 1840 – it was the only orchestral work published before 1884. Joachim frequently performed Schubert's chamber music, including the C major String Quintet. See Moser, Joseph Joachim, 92, 94, 251–7 and 281.

81 Brahms to Adolf Schubring, June 1863; Johannes Brahms, Briefwechsel, 16 vols. (Berlin, 1908–22; repr. Tutzing, 1974–95), viii: Johannes Brahms Briefe an Joseph Viktor Widmann, Ellen und Ferdinand Vetter, Adolf Schubring, ed. Max Kalbeck (repr. 1974), 199. Quoted in Robert Pascall, ‘Brahms and Schubert’, Musical Times, 124 (1983), 286. On Brahms's first maturity, see James Webster, ‘Schubert's Sonata Form and Brahms's First Maturity’, 19th-Century Music, 2 (1978–9), 18–35; 3 (1979–80), 52–71.

82 Kalbeck writes that Brahms made this remark (‘Du has keinen Begriff davon, wie es unsereinem zu Mute ist, wenn er immer so einen Riesen hinter sich marshieren hört’) to Hermann Levi, who communicated it to Kalbeck. See Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms, i, 165.

83 See the correspondence between Engelmann and Brahms (Brahms, Briefwechsel, xiii: Johannes Brahms im Briefwechsel mit Philipp Spitta, Otto Desoff, ed. Carl Krebs (repr. 1974), and the entry in Peter Clive, Brahms and his World: A Biographical Dictionary (Lanham, MD, 2006), 127–9.

84 ‘Monday and Saturday Popular Concerts’, Musical Times, 27/515 (1 January 1886), 18.

85 ‘Im Ganzen steht das Werk in der Bestimmtheit und Selbständigkeit der Erfindung, dem Ebenmasse und der organischen Gestaltung seiner Entwicklung durchaus neben dem Besten, was diese Kunstgattung aufzuweisen hat. Dass der Componist es stellenweise verschmäht, dem Zuhöher bequem entgegenzukommen, dass er von demselben eigene Bemühung verlangt, in das Verständnis des Einzelnen und des Ganzen einzudringen – nun, das ist eine Eigenschaft, welche den Beethoven'schen Quartetten für den, der sie zum erstenmal hört, nicht minder innewohnt; das Schöne kann nicht immer leicht sein.’ Deiters, ‘Streichquartette von Johannes Brahms’, 439. Translation mine.

86 Angelika Horstmann, Untersuchungen zur Brahms-Rezeption der Jahre 1860–1880 (Hamburg, 1986), esp. pp. 98–111.

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At the Intersection of Public and Private Musical Life: Brahms's Op. 51 String Quartets

  • Marie Sumner Lott


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