About this Piece
It was not a matter of casual coincidence that Brahms introduced himself to the Viennese public in 1862 with his first two piano quartets. (Few things just “happened” in the professional life of this most self-critical musician.) Chamber music spans his entire creative output, from the Op. 8 Piano Trio of 1854 to the Op. 120 Clarinet Sonatas 40 years later. Most of it includes the piano, his own instrument, but among the scores that he showed to Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853 were several string quartets. Whether any of that music survived into the two Op. 51 Quartets that he had premiered in 1873 is unknown, but they had clearly been gestating for a long time.
The A-minor Quartet was actually premiered two months before the putative No. 1 of the pair, though both had been sent to Brahms’ publisher at the same time. It is the more expansive and more lyrical of the two, and it is also rich in countrapuntal wonders, particularly canons. Brahms revered Bach, considering the publication of Bach’s complete works, begun in 1850, one of the most important events of his lifetime. The themes of the first movement, for example, are developed largely through polyphonic devices, and the heart-stopping little interludes in the Quasi minuetto movement are double canons. Arnold Schoenberg pointed to the second movement – which has its own vigorous canon – as a model of musical economy, making much out of the reflection and temporal manipulation of a single interval (a 2nd).
Brahms also uses a deeply personal, extra-musical element in the themes of the opening movement. The piece was premiered by the quartet of a good friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, whose motto was “Frei, aber einsam” (Free, but lonely). Brahms countered that with “Frei, aber froh” (Free, but glad), and used the pitches F-A-E and F-A-F prominently. The canon in the second movement has a Hungarian character, as does the flashing dance of the Finale; further links to Joachim. (At this point, it may come as no surprise to hear the Finale’s coda begin as a slow, quiet canon.)