Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897
In the summer of 1890, Brahms planned to retire from his composing career, intending his String Quintet, Op. 111 in G major to be his swan song. When he signed off on the final publisher’s proof of his second viola quintet, Brahms added a note stating, “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music, because it is certainly time to leave off . . .” As with many of his compositions, the piece was originally conceived for a different ensemble, in this case as sketches for a fifth symphony. And though it ended as a string quintet with two violas, a grand symphonic sonority still graces the outer movements. It is an extraordinary work, one of the finest in Brahms’s oeuvre and therefore all of chamber music: exuberant, elegant, subtle, original and unmistakably Brahms in nearly every bar. It makes advances on the first viola quintet written eight years earlier and would have made a perfect final composition for Brahms had it ultimately turned out that way. But a lingering “Indian Summer” of 1891 found Brahms writing once more to produce his ineffable chamber works featuring the clarinet after which he would truly call it quits.
A big orchestral texture launches the first movement with a lush shimmering of the four upper instruments as the cello sings the a lively theme soaring merrily into its upper registers in one of the longest melodies Brahms ever used in the sonata form context. A gentle sway in 9/8 meter animates the exposition through two more themes, each lyrical and charming, softening the athleticism of the first and creating a radiant, beneficent mood betraying nothing of Brahms’s leave taking. The development sweetens the shimmering into a kind of celestial hovering before bounding into a muscular development working motives, counterpoint and the ever-rocking figurations into a froth that breaks with the recapitulation like the sun bursting through clouds. It ends with a glorious coda making this opening movement one of Brahms’s most sublime.
The two central movements turn inward with more subdued sonorities, a melancholy darkened by minor keys and the reedy tone of the violas in the middle range of the ensemble. First, the slow movement adagio walks a slow, stately march introduced by a viola duet over a pizzicato base line in the cello. The single dominant theme recurs five times, each time with a fresh scoring and an ever-changing harmonization. The music rises in a surge as the theme ripens into a yearning major tonality then tumbles into a stormy density of tremolo, fading into a lonely cadenza for solo viola and a final statement of the wistful march. The third movement is equally pensive, tentative and reserved. The duple-meter march becomes a triple-meter waltz, a kind of “waltz misterioso” in a scherzo and trio form where the outer sections in G minor give way to a sweeter interior in G major, a brightly gentle relief that recurs, slightly transformed, like a memory in the coda, a wan smile after an extended frown.
The finale restores the vivacious grandeur of the first movement like robust, sunlit mountains enclosing the shaded valleys between them. Characterized by many writers as a jovial dance, it begins with a touch of angst as a worried five-note motif in the “wrong” key before bursting into the proper tonic with a leaping, accented dance evoking the same youthful robustness as the shimmering start. A second theme like a country jig in rolling triplets intensifies the vital groove. The form suggests a sonata movement, but the music is more lively and organic that any schematic with the five-note motive and the leaping accents blending into an indistinguishable synergy constantly evolving with Brahms’s signature thematic variation. An infectious driving builds into a moto perpetuo rush toward the end erupting into another Brahms signature: an inexhaustible Hungarian dance. Accents, trills, the dashing motif and a gigantic chord of 13 notes conspire to conclude this stunning quintet, a brilliant end for Brahms before his special clarinet encore.