Johannes Brahms made his Vienna debut in the fall of 1862. His reputation preceded him, having been hailed in the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik nine years before, and he already had a gaggle of admirers in the musical capital. The young composer, still clean-shaven and long-haired, was emerging from an incubatory period, in which he had been studying older music, concertizing in smaller cities, and supporting Clara Schumann through the illness and death of her husband, and his mentor, Robert Schumann. The First Piano Quartet came on the tail end of this period, perhaps begun in the late 1850s and finished in 1861. Clara premiered it in Hamburg that fall, and then exactly a year later, on November 16, 1862, Brahms performed it himself at his first Viennese concert.
It’s an ambitious piece with a dramatic shape across four movements. The first movement takes a rather simple theme and develops it across nearly 15 minutes—with an apotheosis of an ending.
The Intermezzo resets the scene, the violin changing its color with a mute, as inner voices power the action with little motor rhythms. After a contrasting trio section, the Intermezzo returns and then evaporates in a coda. The slow movement also comes with a contrast, a miniature march that unexpectedly interjects.
The extraordinary finale was inspired by the music of the Hungarian Romani people, which Brahms heard during his concert-touring days. The quartet becomes a folk band, and 12-bar phrases give their song a rollicking verve, with offbeat accents heralding arrivals through an exhilarating dance. After the first rehearsal of the quartet in Vienna, the notoriously grumpy violinist Joseph Hellmesberger hugged Brahms and said, “this is Beethoven’s heir!”