Skip to page content


Composed: 1875

About this Piece

Music unfolds over time, so a listener depends on a composition’s inner logic to give the listening experience coherence—that is to say, on an underlying structural framework within which each passing moment makes sense. The same could be said of a novel or a movie, of course, but abstract instrumental music cannot take advantage of plot for this purpose. In the case of chamber music, where a more discreet color palette means there are fewer musical elements to draw on, issues of formal design loom especially large. And while musical forms are often described in esoteric language or complex diagrams, their fundamental role—to guide the listener’s ear through a work—is both more direct and more sensory.  

The Brahms Third Piano Quartet offers plenty of interpretive temptations. A young Brahms began the piece during Robert Schumann’s last illness, when Brahms was torn between despair for his friend and love for his friend’s wife. He then tabled the project for nearly two decades before picking it up again and making thorough revisions (including lowering the key a half step), resulting in the current work. An older Brahms confessed to his publisher in characteristically sarcastic terms, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. You can use the blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots, since you seem to like color-printing” (a reference to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which a young man commits suicide because of unrequited love). 

The large-scale architecture of this piece is clear and convincing: two massive outer movements framing two shorter inner movements. And yet there is a kind of unsettled quality that begins immediately with the piano’s arresting opening octaves. The piano gradually pulls the ensemble together in an introduction that clearly establishes the substantial dimensions of the work before leading into the body of the movement, whose first theme is conventionally assertive, the second conventionally lyrical. Yet all is not straightforward within the sonata form: the second theme undergoes a series of variations, and the recapitulation is in the key of G rather than C. This goes beyond a technical issue, as the function of the recapitulation—to land the listener back in stable ground—is compromised. Instead, Brahms takes another journey to get back into the primary key, leaving a sense of something still to be decided. 

The subsequent movements pick up on the various moods that flitted in and out of the opening Allegro non troppo. Of Brahms’s 24 chamber-music pieces, 16 include the piano, and each takes advantage of the instrument’s power, range, and contrast with the strings. In the Scherzo, it pushes the ensemble from a skittery beginning to a forceful ending, which in turn emphasizes the more introspective space of the tender Andante, where the piano plays a friendly supporting role to the strings’ warm legato and decorative use of pizzicato. The violin takes the lead for the Finale, an extended Allegro comodo that begins with a deceptively simple motive. Underneath, the piano provides restless energy, a role that continues to develop as Brahms takes full advantage of the possibilities for spirited interchange with the strings. (The reiterated short-short-short-long pattern cannot help but recall Beethoven’s “fate” motive.) Later, lyrical-theme passages like the usual interlude designed to make the big push to a boisterous finale seem that much more impressive. However, Brahms surprises us with the final moments, where he first appears headed in one direction, then abruptly switches to another. How much this represented the composer’s own internal conflict is debatable—but there is no debate that his aesthetic vision has led unswervingly to this point from the opening notes of the first movement. —Susan Key