Work

String Quartet in B-flat Major • Quatuor en si bémol majeur, op 67, op 67 (1876)

Johannes Brahms

string quartet

Movements

  • 1. Vivace
  • 2. Andante
  • 3. Agitato allegretto non troppo
  • 4. Poco allegretto con variazioni

Performances

Program Notes

Brahms is justifiably recognized as one of the Romantic Era’s most accomplished composers in the two major genres of symphony and of chamber music, where his fiery spirit and breadth of vision rival only with his mastery of form. Yet, he wrote only four symphonies and three string quartets. Partial explanations for this could be the giant shadow Beethoven cast upon the entire century, as well as by Brahms’s refusal to bow to the vogue of programmatic music and his willingness to restrict himself to more classical forms. Moreover, he was his own harshest critic, and left behind no scrap of music with which he was not satisfied.

Beethoven had presented his first quartets, Opus 18, in the same year as his first symphony. This was in 1800 and Beethoven was 30. Brahms was 40 when he gave the world his first two string quartets, Opus 51, in 1873, and 43 when he finished his Symphony No. 1, in 1876. Opus 51 had not been his first forays into the genre, though. As early as 1853, Schumann had mentioned having admired several Brahms string quartets, but alas! none have survived. Opus 51 itself had been undertook around 1865.

If Brahms’s first two quartets had such a long gestation period, it was all the contrary for his third and last quartet, Opus 67, entirely written in the summer of 1876 and first publicly performed the following October in Berlin by the string quartet of his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Perhaps Brahms felt this as a breath of fresh air, rekindling the spirit of Haydn and the young Beethoven, after having delivered himself that same year of his first symphony, which had been in the works since 1855! The irresistible impetus of the opening Vivace—whose main theme reappears at the end of the final movement variations (one of the composer’s favorite forms) —makes way for the radiant songfulness of the Andante. As for the Agitato scherzo, it holds a special place for the plangent voice of the viola.

Jacques-André Houle