Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Synopsis

This book is a substantial and timely contribution to Brahms studies. Its strategy is to focus on a single critical work, the C-Minor Piano Quartet, analyzing and interpreting it in great detail, but also using it as a stepping-stone to connect it to other central Brahms works in order to reach a new understanding of the composer's technical language and expressive intent. It is an original and worthy contribution on the music of a major composer." --Patrick McCreless

Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music integrates a wide variety of analytical methods into a broader study of theoretical approaches, using a single work by Brahms as a case study. On the basis of his findings, Smith considers how Brahms's approach in this piano quartet informs analyses of similar works by Brahms as well as by Beethoven and Mozart.

Musical Meaning and Interpretation--Robert S. Hatten, editor

Excerpt

“Imagine a man who is about to shoot himself, and for whom there is no other way out.” So suggested Johannes Brahms to his friend Hermann Deiters upon showing him a version of the first movement of his C-Minor Piano Quartet, op. 60, in the summer of 1868. As advice for music appreciation, this certainly stands out as one of the most unusual suggestions ever offered by a composer. Brahms nevertheless continued to associate the quartet with images of suicide through the work’s completion in 1873–74. He wrote to another friend, Theodore Billroth, to explain that he was presenting him the final version of the quartet “purely as a curiosity! An illustration, as it were, to the last chapter of the man in a blue swallow-tail coat and yellow waistcoat.” This sartorial description is an obvious reference to the famous dress of Werther, the central character in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), a novella about the emotional agony and eventual suicide of a young man in love with the wife of an admired older friend.

What could it possibly mean to suggest that an abstract instrumental work, by of all composers Brahms, illustrates an act of suicide? the quartet is a piece, after all, that like so many of Brahms’s instrumental cycles unfolds in four movements, in a standard fast-fast-slow-fast pattern. Moreover, as is typical for Brahms, each movement follows conventions of the Classical forms traditionally associated with its position in the cycle: sonata form for the first and last movements, an ABA′ ternary pattern for the scherzo, and for the Andante a sonata-ternary hybrid characteristic for Brahms and in no way unprecedented in the Viennese tradition. in genre, instrumentation, form, tonal language, and motivic process, the quartet hardly appears to stand apart from Brahms’s other chamber works in a manner that would justify associations with something as disturbing as the image of a man about to commit suicide.

Yet the crucial phrase here is “hardly appears.” For, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving, especially when considered superficially. the connection Brahms suggested between the quartet and Goethe’s Werther—and by extension with his relationship to Robert and Clara Schumann—has often been cited in the Brahms literature. One nevertheless searches in vain for sustained exploration of . . .

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