Quartet in G minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 15 (1861) Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 – Vienna, 1897)
orchestrated in 1937 by Arnold Schoenberg (Vienna, 1874 – Los Angeles, 1951)
The nineteenth century saw chamber music move out of the ‟chamber,” that is, the private homes for which the Classical repertoire was written, and into the concert hall, which it began to share with solo recitals and symphonic programs. Not only had the technical difficulty of the chamber music parts grown so that amateur musicians could no longer hope to master them; the music itself began to take on symphonic proportions, both in size and in complexity.
This development had started with the middle and late string quartets of Beethoven and the chamber works of Schumann. Brahms, in a characteristic fashion, started in his twenties where his predecessors had left off after years of experience. He wrote a large-scale piano trio (Op. 8) when only 21 (much later, he substantially revised this work, but allowed both versions to circulate, and even the first version is remarkably mature), and was only 28 when he finished the G-minor Piano Quartet, soon to be followed by another piano quartet, in A major. In his excellent Brahms monograph, Malcolm MacDonald called this group of works ‟‛symphonic’ in their formal ambitions and range of contrast.” Of the G-minor quartet in particular, MacDonald said: ‟In fact the work seems continually to strive beyond its chosen medium, towards an orchestral sense of colour, scope of expression and developmental range.”
It was no doubt this symphonic quality that made the G-minor quartet a prime candidate for orchestration, even though its ‟orchestral” quality did not have to be made explicit in this way. Schoenberg stated his (rather idiosyncratic) reasons for having undertaken the project in a much-quoted letter to Alfred Frankenstein, music critic and program annotator in San Francisco:
1. I like the piece.
2. It is seldom played.
3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.
Schoenberg had a very special connection to Brahms, whom he had met in person in the 1890s. His early works had been profoundly influenced by Brahms, whose music he continued to study and analyze all his life. He expressed his views on Brahms in an influential essay ‟Brahms the Progressive,” published in the volume Style and Idea (1950).
According to MacDonald, the first movement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor
was the most searching sonata movement Brahms had yet written, counterposing a ruthless concentration (in the comparatively brief development section) on the one-bar motif that makes up the very first theme, with a reckless expansiveness in the outer sections and an unparalleled reshuffling of the exposition’s elements in the recapitulation, even introducing a completely new idea. There is energy and lyricism in plenty, but the movement is never untroubled, continually questioning its own premises; and no comforting answer is found, for the coda, beginning hopefully with sweet tranquillo writing for strings alone, blazes up in a passion only to gutter out quietly in implied frustration.
All the contrast, expansiveness, and reshuffling MacDonald writes about comes into even sharper focus in Schoenberg’s orchestration. Where Brahms contrasted the piano with the three string instruments, Schoenberg had myriad different possibilities for contrasting timbres at his disposal. An expansive string melody, written for one violin, acquires quite a different character when played by sixteen. As for the ‟reshuffling” (meaning that, in the recapitulation, themes don’t return exactly in the same form in which they were heard in the exposition), these differences are further accentuated by the orchestration. In his letter to Frankenstein, Schoenberg claimed to have remained strictly in the style of Brahms and to have gone no further than Brahms might have gone had he lived in the 20th century. Yet Schoenberg’s score contains some instruments that Brahms had never used (E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, xylophone). Divided strings and orchestral doublings are also implemented in rather original ways. As a result, the sound of the orchestration is, at times, distinctly un-Brahmsian. Schoenberg’s contribution is comparable to what Ravel did with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Both arrangements are highly creative interpretations of their originals, revealing what one great composer thought of another’s work better that they could ever have expressed in words.
The expansive and contrast-filled first movement is followed by an ‟Intermezzo.” (Brahms had originally called this movement a ‟scherzo,” but it has little in common with his other scherzos. The new name ‟Intermezzo,” used here for the first but certainly not the last time by Brahms, simply means a lyrical movement. Schoenberg, who had started the first movement with a trio of clarinets (small, regular, and bass) now gives the ingratiating first theme to a duo of double reeds: oboe and English horn. The mysterious eighth-note accompaniment is passed from violins to horns to double basses, while the bulk of the melodic activity is in the woodwinds. The tempo becomes more animated in the fluid Trio, which keeps up the motion in equal eighth-notes. After the recapitulation of the intermezzo, the movement ends with an ethereal coda, enhanced in the orchestration by a sophisticated use of divided strings and harmonics.
The third-movement ‟Andante con moto” is, in the original, a lyrical song with echoes of a military march (in 3/4 time) as its middle section. In the orchestration, the first statement of the song grows to rather massive proportions as both treble and bass are doubled at several octaves. This weighty exposition is only the preparation for even bigger orchestral fireworks in the ‟military” section, where everything Brahms had only hinted at becomes fully apparent, with a gradual deployment of full brass and percussion. The recapitulation of the lyrical song is another example of how Schoenberg enlarged upon the contrasts inherent in Brahms’s original. Marked forte the first time, the melody is played piano at the return. Accordingly, the heavy doublings are gone, the theme is given to a single oboe, and, although another fortissimo outburst is yet to come, the recapitulation is significantly more subdued in character than the exposition was.
The last movement, the celebrated Gypsy rondo, gave Schoenberg a chance to positively ‟go wild” with the orchestration. He made Brahms’s rondo theme even more boisterous by using several special playing techniques in the strings, including an unusually high range for the double basses. Where Brahms had imitated the cimbalom (the Hungarian hammered dulcimer) in his piano part, Schoenberg substitutes a xylophone to irresistible effect. In the first episode, flutes, clarinets, and glockenspiel become the leaders in the game; in the second, the full orchestra briefly turns into a Gypsy band. For that stunning moment when the mood temporarily becomes melancholy, Schoenberg borrowed one of Brahms’s masterstrokes from the first movement of the Second Symphony: violas and cellos move in parallel thirds and sixths, but with the cellos on top. Finally, in what was a piano cadenza in the original, Schoenberg has the whole orchestra ‟play cimbalom” while the clarinets step into the limelight. The final measure of the cadenza, with a wild cascade in cellos and double basses, is particularly memorable. Near the end, the fullest tutti effects are juxtaposed with some of the most sparsely orchestrated moments in the whole piece: in order, once more, to accentuate the contrasts, but also to add to the fun.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) Sergei Rachmaninoff (Semyonovo, Russia, 1873 - Beverly Hills, California, 1943)
The decade before Rachmaninoff’s emigration from Russia was, without a doubt, the apex of his career as a composer. Between 1907 and 1917 he wrote many of his greatest works: in addition to the Third Piano Concerto, the Second Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, the choral symphony The Bells, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and a large number of songs and piano pieces all date from those years.
The Third Piano Concerto was written for Rachmaninoff’s first American tour in 1909. Little did the composer realize, at the time he received the invitation, that he would visit the country where he would eventually make his home. He accepted the offer only after some hesitation, and then only because he hoped that the fees he was promised would allow him to realize his dream of buying an automobile.
In this work, Rachmaninoff aspired to be worthy of the 19th-century virtuoso tradition in every respect. The last of the great Romantic pianist-composers in the lineage of Chopin, Liszt, and Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff also wanted, it seems, to emulate the synthesis between concerto and symphony achieved in the two piano concertos of Brahms. This is shown by the many orchestral solos that join, and sometimes compete with, the piano soloist, as well as by the numerous thematic links between movements, carefully planned and masterfully executed.
Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto certainly doesn’t lack pianistic brilliance (to say the least). But the first two dozen measures of the piano part could actually be played by a child. This is the famous “Russian hymn” theme that some commentators have tried to trace to an old religious chant from Kiev, although Rachmaninoff insisted that there was no such connection. When asked how his theme had been conceived, the composer said only: “It simply wrote itself!...”
The first theme is immediately repeated by the violas, accompanied by piano figurations that grow more and more complex. The changes in texture are gradual, and in less than three minutes, the “Russian hymn” evolves into a cadenza. A new idea is then announced, first in the form of a staccato dialog between piano and orchestra, and only then as the singing second theme that we have been expecting. After a spectacular elaboration upon this theme, the “Russian hymn” returns in its original form, introducing a free development section in the course of which the rhythmic accompanimente of the first theme is always clearly heard. At the climactic moment, the tempo becomes faster and the entire orchestra enters fortissimo on a dissonant diminished seventh chord. Soon the pianist launches into the second and main cadenza. Rachmaninoff later replaced his original cadenza with an even bigger one, but he preferred to play the first version. (The printed score contains both cadenzas, which in fact differ only in their first halves.) The cadenza includes an accompanied portion with haunting wind solos recalling the “Russian hymn,” and a fantasy, for piano alone, upon the singing second theme. Therefore, the cadenza effectively functions as the movement’s recapitulation, and all that is needed afterward is a brief coda. The coda states the “Russian hymn” in its original form one last time, followed by the first staccato version of the second theme that has been heard in this form only once before. The repeat of this almost-forgotten detail at the end shows that a good composer wastes nothing, and every detail finds its place in the larger structure. The formal design of the movement is, in fact, quite original, by no means as conservative as Rachmaninoff is often made out to be.
The second-movement “Intermezzo” opens with an orchestral introduction that gives the pianist the only respite in the entire concerto. The soulful melody, presented in turn by woodwinds and strings, is subsequently taken over by the piano and is considerably intensified in the process. (One of the transitional passages from the first movement, a descending sequence in thirds, is recalled by the solo piano, with the addition of some sensuous chromatic harmonies.) The virtuoso figurations surrounding the theme form a bridge to the next section, a brief scherzando, in which the “Russian hymn” from the first movement reappears, played by the clarinet and bassoon. The “Intermezzo” melody is then recalled, followed by a transition of a few measures leading into the finale.
The last movement is in a broad A-B-A form. The A section consists of a string of themes with a sharp rhythmic profile, plus an expansive lyric idea. The B section itself can be divided into three sections, with a central “Lento molto espressivo” (slow, very expressive) flanked by a brilliant scherzando. The entire B section is based on material from the first movement: what was originally a lyrical second theme becomes the basis for a series of scintillating variations, combined at one point with the “Russian hymn.” The “Lento” is, in essence, another variation on the first movement’s second theme. After a recapitulation of the A section, the tonality changes from D minor to D major, for an ending that is both solemn and jubilant.
Rachmaninoff on Gustav Mahler, who led the second performance of the Third Piano Concerto:
Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with [Arthur] Nikisch [the most celebrated conductor of the time]. He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important—an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.