Brahms Viola Quintet in G Major, opus 111

Reprintable only with permission from the author.

Among our great composers, Johannes Brahms led an unusually blessed existence. He was adored and feted during his lifetime, dubbed one of the “Three B’s” (along with Bach and Beethoven), enjoying a kind of rock-star fame in German-speaking countries and beyond. He composed his music during a period where audiences were possibly larger, more knowledgeable and more enthusiastic than any time before or since. He made a good living — and eventually became quite wealthy — as a composer, pianist and conductor, but mainly as a composer; and unlike the greats before him (including Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert) he wrote anything he pleased at leisure, not having to solicit work, find an employer, or rely on commissions. He attained this independence by his late 20s and lived to be 63, enjoying robust health for his entire life. He was surrounded by loving friends and never lacked for human companionship.

In spite of this, nobody would call him a happy man. In the midst of all the adulation, he constantly doubted his own abilities, considering himself a poor successor to the great composers of the past. He also had intimacy issues, to put it charitably — he pushed his friends and his romantic prospects away repeatedly and hurtfully, and felt himself to be forever an outsider. One might expect a composer of his good fortune to understand joy and fulfillment, and to be especially inclined to write music that laughs, exults and sparkles. But much of his “happiest” music, such as the B-flat String Quartet, the Academic Festival Overture or the third movement of his Fourth Symphony, can have a hard-working, determined quality that compares unflatteringly to the blissful grace of Mendelssohn or the dazzling, unreasoning joy of some Schumann. The most beloved music by Brahms tends, rather, to be that which conveys loneliness, sorrow, distant thunder, radiant and melancholy depths. When he ends a minor-key movement in major, as at the conclusion of the G Major Violin Sonata, or the Third Symphony, we are not gladdened, but moved to tears by the tender, bereft beauty of this music.

But then there is the G Major Viola Quintet. Anybody wishing to refute the image of “Brahms as brooder” would surely cite this piece, whose famous opening bounds off the page with joy — irrepressible, authentic. One friend, hearing it for the first time, described it as “Brahms in the Prater!” (referring to the composer’s beloved Vienna park where he walked every day); Brahms replied, “You’ve got it!” Accompanied by churning upper strings, an astounding cello melody unfolds, spanning nearly three octaves, Olympian in its energy. Eventually the first violin is drawn in and spars with the cello, contrapuntal sparks flying. The first section of the movement is a process of gradual calming, leading to a warmer melody in the two violas, and later a third theme which is more delicate and waltz-like. The movement occupies an enormous expressive canvas, ranging from orchestral brilliance all the way to the most intimate of whispers. Throughout, Brahms indulges in all of the composer’s craft for which he is known — rhythmic reimaginings of the meter, imitative overlaps, and a love of examining small parts of his melodies, gradually transforming and recombining them with each other so that they eventually become something else entirely. The symphonic pretensions of this movement are unmistakable; in fact, Brahms’ friend and biographer Max Kalbeck speculated that the material in this movement was originally intended for a fifth symphony, which never came to be.

The second movement, an Adagio, is extraordinarily ambiguous on many levels. Harmonically, it sits on the knife-edge between two keys, D minor and A major, the former trying to assert itself but constantly sliding towards the latter (and as if that weren’t enough, the main melody spends most of its time in a third key, C major). At the same time, the music alternates between two moods or textures: we hear on the one hand a somber, ceremonial tread that verges on the funereal at times, and on the other hand a wandering triplet line that is unmoored, searching and lonely. Even the form of the movement is irresolute, having the outline of a free fantasia, but also carrying the qualities of a set of variations. The music is like a question that a thinker is putting to himself, over and over; the frustration mounts until there is a sudden outbreak of intensity, but still the answer eludes him. When it finally comes –a moment of terrible D-minor realization — turbulence and upheaval ensue, the instruments shouting at each other over seething waves of triplets. The dust settles, and the theme reappears one last time, broken and disconsolate, having found resolution but not peace.

A wistful dancelike movement follows; at first the opening melody seems to echo the harmony and contour of the previous movement, but quickly becomes something else, a waltz in the shadows, accompanied by shuddering, gentle syncopations. The melody halts over and over, trying to find its way, eventually starting over in an even softer voice. This is a movement of snippets; sometimes the melody does manage to put together an arc of four bars, but more often the music is composed of aborted attempts, hesitations, sighs, gasps. In a central section, the sun comes out, the two violas sing a simple two-bar idea that is answered, voices flipped, in the violins; it is a moment of respite and blue skies. Of course, with Brahms, the cloud cover is never far away; the doubt-laden chromatic wandering returns, sun and shadow vying with one another until a shocking, accented dissonance heralds the return of the original dance, halting and overcast as ever.

The Hungarian or Gypsy flavor was beloved by Brahms (it seems that he did not distinguish too finely between the two); he listened constantly to Gypsy music in the Viennese cafes that he frequented, and one of his closest friends, the violinist Joseph Joachim, was Hungarian. The terse final movement of the Quintet embraces this flavor from the beginning, alternating a fun, scurrying melody with a more vigorous, leaping response. As in the second movement, there is a harmonic tension between two keys, the movement attempting to assert a B minor identity, but pulled irresistibly towards joyful G major. There is a wealth of melodies in the movement, the first two ideas being rapidly succeeded by a sighing upward motif over a billowing texture, and eventually a skirling arpeggio with a lilting offbeat accent. Towards the end of the movement, the fight between B minor and G major finds a compromise, as a B major version of the main theme is proposed in a delicate, hushed passage. But the tension of this compromise is too much to bear, and the music explodes outward, into a suspenseful moment of silence. In the rollicking coda that follows, G major triumphs utterly, conveyed by a giddy Gypsy theme which appears out of nowhere, complete with the typical rapid offbeat accompaniment of one of Brahms’ cafe bands. Amidst the celebration, we can make out our main themes from the movement, whirled away in the dance, no longer caring about niceties of structure or development, only the high noon of exuberance and celebration.

Note by Misha Amory