Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

Program note written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Johannes Brahms’s music often came to him in the abstract, not tied to specific instruments. While many composers might set out to write a piano quintet, for Brahms it was simply the best ensemble in which to house a musical idea.

The Piano Quintet in F Minor was first composed as a string quintet (two violins, viola, and two cellos, 1862), then reworked into a sonata for two pianos (1863), and finally rescored for piano and strings (two violins, viola, and a single cello, written 1864 and published 1865). It is an expansive, novelistic work populated by numerous characters in a multitude of settings.

The first movement begins with the violin, cello, and piano doubling one another in a four-bar phrase, soon contrasted with firm chords over running piano. Then the four strings resume the opening melody, all together at the octave. (This reveals a strength of the piano quintet ensemble: with the keyboard to harmonize, the strings are free to unite in ways they rarely could alone.) Among the many ideas in this extended movement is a little triplet turn, a kind of comment, first introduced in the viola and cello, then rising with heightened expectations. The middle of the movement is more internal, lurking in the piano and then growing outward and upward. Even the movement’s end continues to introduce new colors and ideas: the strings, playing high without piano, pause before tumbling back toward the chords from the opening.

The Andante leads with a lilt, restful, before the music stirs and livens. Then again it stretches and comes back to rest. The Scherzo is grounded by drum beats, first low and distant in cello pizzicato, then sharp and near in string and piano staccato. The intervening Trio is more whimsical, but still built on a drum-like pulse.

An eerie fog covers the opening of the Finale. The cello, left-hand piano, violin, then viola drift in imitation of one another. Then comes an up-tempo tune in the cello, and the music rushes forward. Characters continue to emerge from the dissipating haze: finally a near-ending remains slightly askew and unresolved, allowing the most strident theme to return, only to be slightly sweetened and then occluded in a dash and full stop.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.