Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism

Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism

Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism

Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism


Lateness and Brahms takes up the fascinating, yet understudied problem of how Brahms fits into the culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Brahms's conspicuous and puzzling absence in previous scholarly accounts of the time and place raises important questions, and as Margaret Notley demonstrates, the tendency to view him in neutralized, ahistorical terms has made his music seem far less interesting than it truly is.


One of the most celebrated moments in Brahms’s music comes near the end of the F Major String Quintet’s middle movement, completed in 1882. The movement has combined the typically contrasting keys, affects, and tempos of a slow movement and scherzo, three Grave sections in C-sharp minor/major alternating with two interludes in A major, an Allegretto vivace and a Presto. Remarkably, though the two types are contained within one movement, the contrast between them is more striking than usual in Brahms, the keys and types seemingly irreconcilable. The coda of the final Grave, like the two that preceded it, consists of a bare, circular chord progression. (See ex. I. 1a and b for the first and third codas.)

In each of the previous codas, the progression moved twice, relentlessly, from a C-sharp minor triad through an altered A major triad and a Neapolitan chord to a full cadence in C-sharp minor. The coda of the third Grave begins with a C-sharp major tonic followed by an unaltered A major triad, but it appears as if the concluding tonic will still be C-sharp. After two statements of the chord progression, however, Brahms rhythmically augments the first two chords and proceeds no further, repeating the chords as if considering which to settle on as tonic: the sense of subjective presence is strong. In an extraordinary plagal cadence, C-sharp major cedes to A major, a D minor triad, the minor Neapolitan in C-sharp major/minor, reinterpreted as the minor subdominant in A major. In suggesting conscious thought and human agency, the ending conveys a psychological drama unprecedented in instrumental music, a thinking subject seeming to choose a key and the associations it has accumulated in the course of a movement.

1. See the appendix for a list of Brahms’s multimovement instrumental works.

2. In a type of enharmonic reinterpretation motivated by organicist impulses and therefore beloved by nineteenth-century composers, the E-sharp in the altered (augmented) A major triad of the first and second codas becomes F-natural in the plagal cadence of the final coda.

3. The Viennese critic Theodor Helm called the ending “Beethovenian, moving,” but no comparable moment occurs in Beethoven. Beethoven’s Streichquartette: Versuch einer technischen Analyse dieser Werke im Zusammenhange mit ihrem geistigen Gehalt (Leipzig: C. F. W. Siegel, 1885), 318. As Donald Tovey observed, “nothing else like this is to be found in music.” “Brahms’s Chamber Music,” in The Main Stream of Music and Other Essays (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1959), 259.

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