Syllabus: Chamber Music of Brahms

Course themes:

  • “Developing variation”
  • The tension between Brahms’s conservative and progressive tendencies
  • “Romanticism”
  • What makes Brahms sound like Brahms?

Week 1: What is chamber music?
Clarinet sonata in F minor, Op. 120/1
Horn Trio, Op. 40

  • Identify the major structural signposts of the first movements: exposition, development, recapitulation.
  • What is the relationship between the various players in the ensembles? Is each player on equal footing, or do some play a subservient role?
  • Brahms’s chamber music seems to be intimate and expansive at once: the chamber is made to feel like a concert hall. Could Brahms’s chamber music be called symphonic?
  • How does Brahms exploit the extramusical/poetical associations of the clarinet (Romani and Jewish folk music) and those of the horn (pastoral and Alpine tropes)?
  • Is Brahms progressive (Op. 120/1/i) or is Brahms conservative (Op. 40/iii)?

Week 2: Second movements
Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51/1/ii
Horn Trio, Op. 40/ii

  • What position in the dramatic arc of a multi-movement work that a second movement must fill?
  • How does the beginning of these second movements relate to the emotional geography of the first movements which precede them? Do the second movements pick up on the drama and conflict of the first movement as a whole, or do they extend (and develop) the repose which inevitably comes at the end of a first movement?
  • Does the second movement of the C minor quartet feel static/boring?
  • Does the second movement of the Horn trio feel overly active?
  • What does the relationship between the first and second movements of each of these pieces imply about or require of their third movements? If you don’t already know the third movements, can you guess what they might be like (fast or slow, excited or subdued)?

Week 3: Expanded quartets 1
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34
Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51/1

  • Identify the major structural signposts of the first movements: exposition, development, recapitulation. In particular, what is the first theme of the first movement of Op. 34?
  • What are the roles of the piano in Op. 34? Are these functions unfulfilled in Op. 51/1, or do other instruments fulfill them. Another way of asking this question is: why might Brahms have written Op. 34 as a Piano Quintet instead of a regular String Quartet?
  • How does the last movement of Op. 51/1 relate to the first movement? (Listen to the main themes → developing variation!)
  • The first movement of Op. 34 is rather long, tightly-knit, and dramatically complete: are the following movements therefore superfluous? How does the musical discourse avoid this pitfall?
  • The third movement of Op. 51/1 is harmonically restless, consistently avoiding stating a tonic harmony. What is the effect of this, and what might Brahms’s purpose have been? (“Romanticism”)

Week 4: The piano
Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 8
Horn Trio, Op. 40

  • Is Op. 8 a piano piece with string accompaniment? Does the piano overshadow the other parts? How does the use of the piano in Op. 8 compare to the use of the piano in Op. 40?
  • Does Brahms reveal himself to be a keyboard player in these pieces?
  • Critique the performances of the Op. 8 by Altenburg Trio Wien and Op. 40 by Tuckwell, Perlman and Ashkenazy (posted on the class website). We will listen to other performances in class for comparison.
  • What role does the piano play in the finales of these two movements?
  • Is the piano (merely?) a glue that holds the ensemble together? If not the piano, then what force unites the instruments into an ensemble? If the piano is the glue, then how can the piano also be an equal partner in the music making?

Week 5: Expanded quartets 2
Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36
Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51/2

  • What are the traditional roles of the viola and the cello in a (Haydn) string quartet? How does Brahms expand these roles in his Op. 51 quartets?
  • What are the roles of the second viola and cello in the sextet? Are they the same as the roles played by the viola and cello in a Brahms quartet? Or perhaps one pair fulfils the “traditional” Haydn-style roles, and the other pair the “new” Brahms-style roles? Or perhaps both pairs fulfil new roles specific to the sextet genre?
  • Compare the Op. 36 sextet to the Op. 34 quintet. How is adding a piano to a string quartet similar or different, related or unrelated, to adding an extra viola and cello?
  • What effect would the Op. 36 sextet have if played by a small string orchestra, as opposed to a one-on-a-part chamber ensemble? Could Op. 36 be a plausible orchestral piece?
  • Brahms’s chamber music, especially the large-form genres (the “expanded quartets”), aspires to symphonic proportions. How might this be an expression of the Romantic aesthetic? For example, consider how it is different from the aesthetic embodied by Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major (for 4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos), Op. 20.

Week 6: Finales
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34/iii
Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51/1/iv
Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51/2/iii

  • Compare and contrast the endings of the two quartets from the Op. 51 set.
  • Consider: the endings of most movements of a multi-movement work must end the movement, but also lead on to the next movement. The Finale must end the movement but also end the work. Its rhetoric is essentially different therefore. Are the endings of these movements satisfying as endings to the whole work as well?
  • What is the special role of the coda in a Finale movement?
  • Listen for Brahms’s use of developing variation in these Finales. Listen for: themes or versions of themes from other movements that are incorporated, and material that is repeated but changed (developed) as the movement progresses.
  • Is the manner of these endings “Romantic”? Do they offer a valedictory salute, or do they gently fade?