Masterworks IV: “Rach Star”
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25

Orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg

All three of Brahms’s piano quartets date from the period 1857-1861 when he was just starting on the artistic career path that would eventually see him as the standard bearer for the proponents of musical classicism. He was in his turbulent twenties, overwhelmed by his infatuations with Clara Schumann and, later, Agathe von Siebold. Although Robert Schumann, Brahms’s idol at the time, had hailed him as a “young eagle,” his instrumental works, especially the D-minor Piano Concerto, received a rather cool reception from the public.

The G-minor Quartet was premiered in 1861 with Clara Schumann at the piano. In 1934, Arnold Schoenberg escaped from Nazi Germany to settle in Los Angeles. Conductor Otto Klemperer, determined to help the family financially, tried unsuccessfully to get Schoenberg’s original compositions performed. But he had better luck with Schoenberg's transcriptions of works by other composers, including a performance of the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, based on a Handel Concerto Grosso. He commissioned the composer to prepare an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, premiering it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 1938.

While Schoenberg changed none of the notes of Brahms' original score, he wanted the orchestration “…to remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today.” In the transcription, the brass is much heavier than anything Brahms had ever used; Schoenberg uses it and equally heavy percussion to re-enforce forte sections for the original four instruments. Glockenspiel, xylophone, cymbals, trombone glissandi and divided strings were never part of Brahms’ palette. The orchestration reflects such early Schoenberg compositions as the Gurrelieder. What is absent is the contrast Brahms originally set up between the percussive piano and the legato strings.

Until the rousing final movement in “gypsy style” the piece is emotionally intense almost to the point of melancholy. Part of its passion comes from the outpouring of myriad musical ideas, unusual key changes, and the tendency to drift back into the minor mode even in the contrasting major themes.

In Brahms’ original, the first movement begins with a short motif for the piano, transformed three times to coalesce into a principal opening theme (Brahms later used this device in the opening of the Fourth Symphony). Example 1 Example 2 But he introduces several other motives before coming to the formal second theme in B-flat. Example 3 The development works primarily with the opening motive.

Brahms originally called the second movement a scherzo but later changed it to “Intermezzo.” It begins with a little rhythmic figure, which Brahms uses for both scherzo and trio sections. Example 4 It has an almost mysterious air about it Example 5 Example 6 but brightens up with the boisterous trio section. Example 7 This movement is historically important because it represents Brahms’s initial experiment with the transformation of the scherzo form (without standardized system of repeats) as it is used later in the symphonies.

The flowing, romantic themes of the third movement Example 8 Example 9 contrast with a crisp march; Example 10 but Brahms’s harmonic treatment of both themes is tinged with melancholy deceptive cadences. The repeats allow for changes in texture both in the Quartet and the orchestration. The movement develops both of the main ideas in free variations. Example 11

The final rondo represents Brahms’s initial creative response to the Roma (Gypsy) music imported by Hungarian expatriates and popular at the time in Hamburg, his native city. It is wild and flamboyant, the thumping main theme with its unusual three-bar phrases alternating with frenzied flights of fancy and every “Gypsy” cliché in the book. While technically a classical rondo, Example 12 it also as qualities of the call-and-response style common to many folk traditions. In the original Quartet, Brahms emphasizes this quality by setting off the piano and strings. Example 13 Schoenberg follows the same pattern in his orchestration. Example 14
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Following the success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, Sergey Rachmaninov’s career took off and evolved successfully in three directions. He continued to compose, including his Symphony No. 2 in 1906-07, he traveled extensively both at home and in Western Europe as a virtuoso pianist, and he was a sought-after conductor. He tried to apportion his time evenly among the three.

Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 for a long-planned first tour of the United States where he would be featured in the exhausting capacity of wearing all three hats. He was ambivalent about the tour and significantly pressed for time. He did not begin the Concerto until June, taking with him a silent keyboard on which he practiced assiduously during the crossing. The tour and the Concerto were an artistic and financial success. And just as Haydn had been wooed to make his permanent home in London after the success of his “Salomon,” or “London,” symphonies, both the Boston and Cincinnati Symphonies offered Rachmaninov their podiums, which he turned down. Ironically, in 1917, he was forced into exile in Paris, his fortune confiscated and his estate demolished during the violence of the Russian revolution. He continued to tour the Untied States, primarily as pianist, and with the imminence of war in Europe in 1939, he eventually relocated with his family in Beverly Hills where he died.

The Concerto premiered on November 28, 1909 with the New York Orchestra under Walter Damrosch and repeated two months later with the same orchestra under Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, we know nothing of what transpired between these two giants. The Concerto gained immediate and enduring popularity, especially with pianists. It requires immense stamina from the soloist and attests to the composer’s melodic inventiveness and to his outstanding pianistic abilities.

The opening movement is particularly rich in thematic material with new ideas and moods introduced throughout. Over the throbbing orchestra, the piano enters on the third measure with a sad melody of narrow range, the melancholy mood prevailing throughout the elaborate development of the theme. Example 1 The staccato second theme, introduced by the strings, Example 2 is converted by the piano into a flowing lyrical, endless melody that increases the emotional tension by delaying the cadence. Example 3 The extremely long written-out cadenza takes nearly a third of the entire movement and is briefly joined halfway through first by a flute, then by the other woodwinds. Finally, the opening theme returns and the movement ends in a whisper.

The Intermezzo is a fantasy on a single theme presented first on the oboe, Example 4 followed with a variation by the orchestra and finally by the soloist in the major mode. Example 5 The orchestra and piano continue in numerous permutations and variations that vacillate between moodiness and passion. A faster and livelier waltz-like variation, a duet between the piano and solo clarinet, brightens the mood towards the end of the movement. Example 6 But the oboe leads the movement back to the opening mood, interrupted by an exuberant display of pianistic brilliance that leads without pause into the Finale. Example 7 & Example 8

The third movement is in modified sonata form, using a transformation of the second theme from the first movement in a comparable role here. Example 9 Rachmaninov saves the most sparkling writing for the piano in this culminating movement. It includes several elaborately decorated variations on both the opening and second themes. Example 10 In a surprise move, a broad romantic melody of entirely new music announces the conclusion. Example 11

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019