Secrets Inside the Brahms Op. 60 Piano Quartet

Hear the Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor

Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 60 JOHANNES BRAHMS

The great C minor Piano Quartet, op. 60 shows the art of a lion tamer and is easily one of Brahms’ finest achievements. He began the piece while living with Clara Schumann and helping run the Schumann household while Robert was in the mental asylum. Brahms was candid that the brooding quality of the piece was a direct reference to Werther, Goethe’s Romantic hero of unrequited love who eventually commits suicide.  To his publisher he wrote, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. Since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That was the exact description of Werther and 20 years later Brahms was able to joke about his hyper-passionate feelings.

The piece was originally in C# minor, the key used by E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous character, the hypersensitive composer Kreisler (on whom Schumann wrote his famous piano suite Kreisleriana). So it is transparent that Brahms was embroiled working out his growing feelings for Clara amid the tragedy of Robert.

The name of Clara appears immediately in the musical notes, based on Schumann’s own musical motto for Clara—C#-B-A-G#-A, which Brahms in his revisions transposed in C minor to: Eb-D-C-B-C. A discerning ear will hear this motto and variations of it throughout the piece.

But for us this is significant mostly in that it took Brahms 20 years to sort this all out in a piece of such ambitious Beethovenian grandeur. Changing the key of the piece to C minor itself is a Beethovenian move, and the quartet certainly recalls the drama and fate motives of Beethoven’s C minor pieces.  The finale deliberately recalls Beethoven’s stormier piano sonatas (op. 2#1 last movement particularly) as well as quotes of the 5th symphony motto. And placing the slow movement after the Scherzo can’t help but recall Beethoven’s similar decision in the 9th symphony.

The two overriding compositional ideas in the quartet are the sigh figure and the octave. The sigh’s two descending notes imbue gloom and expression, while the octave lends a power and drama. Frequently these ideas are bound together. The piece begins with octaves in the piano followed by the sigh figure in the strings. The second phrase begins a full step lower, as if the piece has literally fallen, and thereby creating a sigh figure on a longer structural level between phrases. The opening of the Scherzo is an octave followed by the sigh figure inverted (going upwards). The slow movement descends in an arpeggio down an octave followed by an inverted sigh. With Brahms’ technique of developing variation, it is not an exaggeration to say all four movements are a continual evolution of these two ideas bound tightly together.

Yet a deeper unifying “secret” of the work lies embedded in its harmonic construction. Strange moments seem to subvert the tonality of C minor. For instance, after the opening bars comes a suspended moment where the viola plucks E natural, a note that is as distant from C minor as possible, confusing our ear as to whether we are in C minor or C major. This E natural becomes in the highest sense of the word, an “irritation” that accumulates as the movement develops, until in the recapitulation when a significant passage modulates entirely to E minor. The third movement of the piano quartet itself is in E major.

This subversion of C minor with E is a telltale that there is a bigger harmonic game going on beneath what at first might seem standard classical structure. What Brahms has done is to organize the entire work around an augmented triad—C-E-G#, far more than a traditional minor triad—C Eb-G. The augmented triad is the “key” that unlocks so many of the strange and wonderful harmonic and melodic impulses of the work. Sometimes the sound of the augmented triad is on the musical surface—such as the opening theme of the slow movement G#-E-C-A etc. Most other times, though, the augmented triad is the secret underpinning of larger progressions, such as the areas of the development section in the first movement around a G augmented triad—G-B-Eb.

Whence the hidden augmented triad structure? My hunch is that the augmented triad is the fusion between the original key of the piano quartet—C# minor—and the finalized key—C minor. A C# minor triad is the notes C#-E-G#. A C minor triad is the notes C-Eb-G. A tonic “fusion” of these two would be the augmented triad C-E-G#. Similarly, the “fusion” of the dominant chord would be G-B-D# which is precisely the structure Brahms uses to alternate throughout the quartet.

This may seem overly technical, but there is a poetic idea behind it. C# minor was the key that represented for Brahms the suicidal unrequited lover. C minor was the key of Beethoven that represents heroic struggle. Brahms used the fusion of these two harmonic centers as a device to represent the powerful music drama of this piano quartet.