Jon Lee


Brahms Piano Quartet no. 3 in c minor, op. 60

Program Notes

You may place a picture on the title page, namely a head—with a pistol in front of it. This will give you some idea of the music. I shall send you a photograph of myself for the purpose. Blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots would do well, as you seem to like color printing.

Brahms, to his publisher

Brahms first worked on the C minor piano quartet from 1854 to 1856, a period of great strain and anxiety for the young composer. With his benefactor and dear friend Robert Schumann suffering with severe mental illness, Brahms found himself torn between fidelity to Robert and deep affection for Clara, Schumann’s wife. When Robert was hospitalized, Brahms rushed to Düsseldorf to help Clara and her seven children, writing to her, “Would to God that I were allowed this day… to repeat to you with my own lips that I am dying for love of you.” He remained with her only until Schumann died in July 1856.

Many of the complex and turbulent emotions Brahms was suffering seem to have flowed into the piano quartet. When Brahms played through the piece, though, he was not pleased and set it aside. Seventeen years later, Brahms finally returned to the quartet.

Brahms’s vivid pictorial description above fits Werther, the morbidly sentimental hero of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, who kills himself for the unrequited love of his friend’s wife, hence the quartet acquired the subtitle “Werther.”

While the tragedy of the piano quartet is most strongly felt in the first movement, its emotional center is the third. Biographer Richard Specht considers the opening cello melody to be Brahms’s reluctant farewell to Clara, a pained acknowledgement of their doomed relationship. Brahms took inspiration from the opening theme in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s second piano trio to create the underlying current for the final movement.

Other resources

  • Updates:
  • 10 Sep 2022 — Adopted from Alden Trio program notes

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