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Program Notes: Opening concert

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Whereas in the eighteenth century chamber music for piano with a solo instrument, the string quartet and the piano trio took off, in the nineteenth century the combination of the piano with three or even four string instruments in particular increasingly gained prominence. Mozart, whose first piano quartet will be heard later during this twentieth edition of the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht, may have set a good example, but it was the generation of Robert Schumann and, later in the nineteenth century, Johannes Brahms who put the piano quartet on the map as a powerful and vital genre. So much so that a composer like Gustav Mahler took advantage of it in his younger years. As a young man with grand compositional ambitions, he studied the works of Schumann and Brahms, among others, and he started working on his own piano quartet at the age of 16. In addition to these predecessors, the influence of Mahler’s composition teacher Robert Fuchs is easy to hear. Although the work appears to be an exercise in writing a multimovement piece with a first movement in sonata form, it remained with the first movement and an impetus for a second movement, a scherzo. Nonetheless, Mahler impressed even then with this symphonically conceived first movement of a piano quartet, which this ‘Quartettsatz’ is in fact. Thus, the compelling work was performed not only at the Vienna Conservatory, but also subsequently at the home of Dr. Theodor Billroth, a doctor and very close friend of Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was one of the great examples for Mahler. Not surprisingly, the composer contributed substantially to the genre with his three piano quartets. He wrote the first two piano quartets in the early sixties of the nineteenth century. This period shortly after the death of his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann has been called Brahms’ ‘first maturity’. It is in any case the time of the two string sextets, the piano quintet, a horn trio and cello sonata. The beginnings of the Third Piano Quartet also date from this period. Why Brahms left this work until the seventies is not clear. When he picked it up again, he revised the piece thoroughly and wrote with some sarcasm to his publisher, referring to the youthful drama it still contained: ‘On the cover of the edition of the work you should put an image, namely a head with a pistol on it. Now you can get an idea of the music! I’ll send you my picture for that. You can use the blue jacket, yellow jodhpurs and high boots, because you seem to like colour prints.’ Although Brahms meant it with some self-mockery, this reference to Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers was not entirely out of the blue. This book was the main impetus for the first edition of the Third Piano Quartet, which consists of two substantial corner movements in which Brahms completely turns the sonata form to his will without violating the form with a light-footed Scherzo and a compelling Andante in between.

Brahms, in turn, drew gratefully on the examples Robert Schumann had set with his chamber music works, especially with the Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet that were created shortly after each other in 1842. Especially with the Piano Quintet, Schumann made history. After Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet (in which the second violin was replaced by a double bass), it was one of the first quintets for piano and four strings, in this case a string quartet, by an important composer. After Schumann, this scoring was widely imitated, which had everything to do with the success of his chamber music masterpiece. His Piano Quintet brilliantly captures the interaction between the piano and the four strings, which was evident from the moment it premiered on 8 January 1843 in the Gewandhaus in Leipzig with Clara Schumann at the piano. Schumann succeeded in engaging the audience with an impassioned Allegro brillante, an often far too sombre slow march, a Scherzo in which he manages to captivate throughout with something as simple as a scale, and a Finale that is midway between a sonata and a fugue. A find in the last movement is the return of the first theme from the first movement, which gets a fugal treatment and gives the feeling of coming full circle.