Johannes Brahms: String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111

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

This piece is a marvel: a concise 30 minutes richly set with musical ideas where nothing is superfluous. And then there is its inventiveness, its sense of surprise. This is built right into the setup, as the string quintet—in this case a string quartet with an additional viola—lends an imbalance, like a guest who takes on some household tasks, freeing family members from their usual roles, but also disrupting the normal routine.

But even the most obvious plot for this visitor is subverted. It would make sense, for instance, for a viola quintet to start with the violas. But no, the cello dives in instead with a wild solo across most of its range, springing across strings and punctuating with rolled chords, all while the other instruments gleam together above. The cello’s line is artfully subsumed into the accompaniment as the violins claim the phrase, then another chord leaves the upper strings hanging, as if over a cliff, before falling in sequence toward a second theme in the second violin. Only after do the violas emerge together in focus.

The slow movement, Adagio, is a darkly colored, melancholy episode set in the key of D minor, opening with the kind of double viola solo that the first movement rejected. They fixate on an ornament—a kind of elaborate exhale. Somewhere past the movement’s midpoint comes a series of slippery chords, bending toward a united climax that falls away, leaving a viola alone. The ornament returns in shadow, but is warmed as the final chords slip into the major key.

Beautiful and eerie, Un poco allegretto has a precarious, syncopated little refrain that thrillingly insinuates itself. A brighter trio section suggests the outdoors, still with a hint of unease. The interlude dissipates warily and the opening returns. Then the front door opens once again, and the sun shines in.

The final movement leads with an anxious, minor-key introduction that belies the Vivace’s true character: a raucous reel. These two qualities are at odds until a huge, unison scamper in the five instruments releases all the tension into a new section, marked Animato, which quickly finishes the quintet in a rough, jubilant dance.

After drawing the final double barline, Brahms decided to retire. It was December 1890, and though he was only 57 years old, he sent the manuscript to his publisher with a note: “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music—because it is certainly time to leave off.” He was living comfortably and his music was widely celebrated. And he was a man with the instinct to step down from a height rather than to slip into decline. But rarely does a composer truly retire, and so it was for Brahms: after just a few months
of rest, he was lured back to write several clarinet works (quintet, trio, and two sonatas), which he followed with some assorted smaller pieces, and then in 1896 Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) as a gift for Clara Schumann as she was dyingLess than a year later, Brahms followed her, departing at 63, though he had long resembled a much older man behind a thick gray beard.

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.