Intro to the Chamber Music of Brahms

Botstein, The Compleat Brahms (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 87–89.

If Schumann recognized the symphonic character of Brahms’s early chamber music, others have perceived the chamber music-like quality of Brahms’s symphonic works. That is hardly surprising, since Brahms’s chamber music was a continuous, integral part of his artistic expression throughout his career—a primary medium for the development of his compositional technique. Consequently Brahms’s chamber music represents one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century European music. As critics from Paul Bekker to Reinhold Brinkmann have pointed out, Brahms felt that a mastery of chamber music forms was necessary as preparation for symphonic endeavors. However, his chamber music should by no means be seen as something preliminary, but rather as close to the heart of all Brahms’s accomplishment. In terms of its critical reception, it was the most consistently highly pried dimension of Brahms’s music during his lifetime.

Brahms’s models for chamber music were the masters of Viennese Classicism: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The string quartet constituted an indispensable benchmark for the genre of chamber music. For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the quartet was the idealized “conversation,” a sustained narrative and philosophical experience transmitted purely musically. In the hands of Haydn and Mozart it became the elite genre of musical composition, and its prestige was further enhanced by Beethoven’s contribution, particularly in the late quartets. In Brahms’s day, these late quartets were just beginning to be widely appreciated. Like much late Beethoven, they had initially been viewed as eccentric if not wildly experimental. Beyond Beethoven, the other quartet and chamber music literature that Brahms admired included the work of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn.

During Brahms’s lifetime, quartet playing and other forms of instrumental chamber music made a gradual but steady migration from the salon and living room to the concert stage. The leading protagonists in this development included the violinist Joseph Hellmesberger (with whom Brahms made his debut in 1861 in Vienna), whose quartet helped bring late Beethoven into prominence, and the quartet formed later by Brahms’s oldest friend, Joseph Joachim. By the 1890s, the last years of Brahms’s life, Europe boasted many significant professional quartets. Among the most prominent of these was the quartet led by the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, Arnold Rosé, Mahler’s future brother-in-law, whose ensemble was responsible for premiering much new quartet music at the turn of the century.

Brahms’s friends from the 1850s on included many amateur and professional instrumentalists, including Joachim, cellist David Popper, clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and many others whose knowledge of the chamber music repertory was intimate. Their evaluation of Brahms’s chamber music reflected the standards of high connoisseurship associated with the genre. Brahms was writing not only in the shadow of great historic achievements but also in the context of the opinions of his contemporaries, who held chamber music to exacting and somewhat conservative standards. This explains in part Brahms’s extraordinary self-criticism (apparently Brahms destroyed dozens of quartets he had composed before publishing the Op. 51 quartets) and his serious consideration of the judgments of close friends such as Elisabet von Herzogenberg and Clara Schumann.

Predictably, many of the chamber music forms in which Brahms excelled often involved the piano. The three piano trios are nearly unequaled masterpieces of the form; although Brahms would have shuddered at the comparison, it has been said that his achievements here exceed those of Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart. Similarly, the sonatas for violin and piano and cello and piano are sturdy pillars of the canon and required repertory for every violinist and cellist. Violists and clarinetists are in Brahms’s debt for the sonatas and other music for clarinet and strings, and the larger ensemble forms, the quintets and the sextets, continue to be heard regularly in modern chamber concert programs.

This impressive range of accomplishment made Brahms’s music a frequent presence among the sophisticated groups of connoisseurs as listeners and players in both Europe and America (the Op. 8 Trio in B Major was premiered in Boston by Theodore Thomas). But the real source of his endearment to the culture of nineteenth-century chamber music was the fact that, despite the professionalization of chamber music playing, Brahms never forgot the gifted amateur as his primary consumer. The Op. 51 quartets are dedicated to Brahms’s friend Theodor Billroth, the surgeon and an avid violist. Brahms was one of the first composers in modern times to maintain a suitable living from the royalties of his compositions; his income was derived, however, not so much from the royalties from public performance as from the purchase of sheet music by the bedrock of active amateurs. Brahms was one of the few composers able to maintain the highest standards of musical literacy and craftsmanship—to an aesthetic lineage begun by Haydn in his chamber music that was characterized by complexity, formal brilliance, and excellence—in a manner that appealed to professional and non-professional players alike. Brahms’s chamber music is outstanding not only for its capacity to satisfy the intellect of the sophisticated music enthusiast, but also for its accessibility, the beauty of its melodic invention, its variety, wit, and excitement. Brahms’s chamber music is the proper place in which to discover the full range of Brahms’s compositional genius, and to witness the development of his trademark characteristics of ruthless clarity, economy, invention, emotional intensity without sentimentality, and unerring sense of proportion.

19. April 2012 by Matthew Hall
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One Comment

  1. I heard the String Sextet in B flat major Op. 18 at the NEC faulty/student “Music for Food” benefit concert Mon. night. Explosive…could barely be contained in Brown Hall. Is this what you mean by chamber music bordering on symphonic ?