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The development of Brahms’ Piano Quintet is not unlike the metamorphic journey of the butterfly from larva to cocoon to its final emergence as a miraculous winged creature. Granted, the story of the Piano Quintet is not so dramatic. Originally conceived as a string quintet with two cellos, it soon metamorphosed into a sonata for two pianos before its final transformation into this Piano Quintet.

After having rehearsed the string quintet version for several months, Brahms’ colleague, the violinist Joseph Joachim, wrote to him on April 15, 1863, “I am unwilling to let the quintet pass out of my hands without having played it to you… I do not wish to dogmatize on the details of a work which in every line shows some proof of overpowering strength. But what is lacking is, in a word, charm. After a time, on hearing the work quietly, I think you will feel the same as I do about it.”

Upon receipt of this criticism, Brahms set to work correcting passages to which Joachim had specifically referred. After a private hearing, Brahms still was not pleased. The problem lay in the string writing. Brahms’ demands upon the instruments exceeded his understanding of their capabilities. Having recognized this, he sought to rescore the music. The first metamorphosis was about to begin.

By February of 1864, Brahms had transformed the string quintet into a sonata for two pianos. Once again he was disappointed after he performed it from the manuscript with pianist Carl Tausig. However, Clara Schumann, who had studied the original string quintet version, and to whom Brahms also sent the new version for two pianos, had a different take. She wrote to Brahms on July 22, 1864, “The work is splendid, but it cannot be called a sonata. Rather it is a work so full of ideas that it requires an orchestra for its interpretation. These ideas are for the most part lost on the piano… The first time I tried the work I had a feeling that it was an arrangement… So please remodel it once more!”

The second transformation came about on the advice of Hermann Levi to form a piano quintet out of the ashes of the sonata. Brahms complied by sending the newest manifestation of the score to Levi, who responded on November 5, 1865, “The Quintet is beautiful beyond words. Anyone who did not know it in its earlier forms of string quintet and two-piano sonata would never believe that it was not originally thought out and designed for the present combination of instruments… You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music…”

Brahms was able to create a hybrid work out of the original string-quintet and two-piano versions, almost as a compromise between himself and his artistic confidants. With the contrasting timbre of the piano against the strings, we can readily distinguish individual melodic lines and juxtapositions of thematic fragments in this very rich weave of contrapuntal threads.

— Steve Lacoste