Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor

Despite his inseparable association as the creator of twelve-tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg held a deep affinity for music of the past. His early pieces, such as Guerre-Lieder and Verklärte Nacht, reflect an extension of the sweeping, late-Romantic idioms of Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler. Even many of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone works keep one foot rooted in an earlier era. His 1923 Suite for Piano, for instance, bases each of its movements after Baroque dance forms, similar to models used by J.S. Bach. Schoenberg’s admiration of his musical forebears can be observed further in his small, but respectable output of arrangements, transcriptions, and adaptations of other composers’ works. The results are remarkably varied, ranging from a grand orchestral transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major to a delightful chamber arrangement of the German Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”).

Perhaps one of Schoenberg’s best-known arrangements is his orchestral transcription of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, which was created at the request of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Otto Klemperer. Klemperer had been planning a Brahms cycle for the orchestra’s 1937–38 season and believed that an orchestral version of the quartet would provide an appropriate capstone for the project, with Schoenberg as the ideal candidate to transcribe the work. Klemperer and Schoenberg had known each other in Vienna, and both had just recently moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, part of the growing community of artists, writers, and musicians who settled in Southern California after fleeing the threat of Nazi Germany.

Schoenberg was thrilled with Klemperer’s request. The music of Brahms held a special place in his heart, and this specific work was particularly beloved, as Schoenberg had played the quartet many times in his youth as both a violist and cellist. In a 1939 letter to the music critic Alfred Frankenstein, Schoenberg further outlined his intentions for taking up the project: 

“Here [are] a few remarks about the ‘Brahms.’ 

My reasons: 

1. I like this 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.

My intentions:  

1. To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. 

2. To watch carefully all these laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate [any of those] which are only known to musicians educated in his environment.”

While remaining respectful to the original composition—an intention clearly outlined above—Schoenberg’s transcription draws from a modern palette of instrumental colors and creates combinations that Brahms could have only dreamed of in his late orchestral works. Specifically, Schoenberg increases the number of players in each section to twentieth-century proportions and complements the woodwind section with both E-flat and bass clarinets. The percussion section is also greatly extended, featuring instruments such as the snare drum, glockenspiel, xylophone, and tambourine. Further, the transition from a four-part chamber to a full orchestra work called for the creation of new melodic lines derived from existing material as well as frequent doublings, a technique seldom employed by Brahms. By doing this, though, Schoenberg managed to hone in on details and motivic relationships previously hidden within the chamber textures and bring them into the foreground. (One other “Schoenbergian” touch is visible in the printed score, which points out the “Hauptstimme”—or primary voice—throughout the piece, a technique Schoenberg utilized in his atonal and twelve-tone works.)

The orchestral transcription was completed relatively quickly, between May and September 1937, but its creation was peppered with tension between Klemperer and Schoenberg. According to Peter Heyworth’s two-volume biography of Otto Klemperer, Schoenberg originally wanted to send the manuscript to Vienna, at the orchestra’s expense, for the creation and copying of orchestral parts. Klemperer insisted that the Philharmonic had no money for such a task and instead provided Schoenberg with a $200 personal check to cover some of the costs. Slightly irritated by this, Schoenberg told Klemperer that he wished for the work to be premiered by an East Coast orchestra since, according to his understanding, he arranged the work by mere request rather than an official commission from the LA Philharmonic. In the end, though, the work was ultimately premiered in Los Angeles, by Klemperer and the Philharmonic on May 7, 1938. Klemperer found the resulting transcription to be “magnificent,” even saying that it makes one “not want to listen to the original quartet anymore.” Schoenberg himself was also pleased with the final product and often referred to the transcription, cheekily, as “Brahms’s Fifth.”

“Brahms’s Fifth” might actually be an apt description, as Schoenberg’s transcription conjures up a work of symphonic proportions. The opening Allegro, with its shifting moods, is given an added layer of drama by way of the full orchestra, particularly in the climax after the movement’s secondary theme in B-flat major. In the second movement, changes in instrumental texture highlight the shift from the languid Intermezzo to the quicker and more spirited Trio (marked by a lighter, string-and-woodwind dominated sound). The third movement—a lush Andante—bookends a surprisingly regal middle section marked “Animato.” Here, the stately dotted rhythms of Brahms’s original are given extra flair with the help of the percussion section (one can’t help but think of the late-1930s wartime connections here). The percussion also plays a vital role in the boisterous final movement, a Rondo “alla zingarese” (“in the gypsy style”). Various episodes break up the recurring dance refrain, allowing for more explorations of instrumentation and tone color. (In one particular episode, the texture is briefly whittled down to just three string instruments—a violin, viola, and cello—a possible homage to the instrumentation of the original quartet.) The final bars pull out all the orchestral stops, and the work whips into a dizzying whirlwind before concluding with a triumphant crash.

In the end, this piece is still entirely Brahms, but viewed through the sensibilities of an unabashedly-modern composer. Perhaps Schoenberg put it best when, in an amusing gloss on Brahms’s famous remark about Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube (“unfortunately NOT by Johannes Brahms”), referred to his orchestral transcription in a similar fashion—“unfortunately by Johannes Brahms, only orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg.”

2 thoughts on “Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor

  1. Very informative aarticle. I think referring to it as Brahms’ 5th is somewhat appropriate as the scope and color of Schoenberg’s transcription is large enough to stand beside the symphonies. I don’t, however, agree with Schoenberg’s fascinating reason for doing this transcription. Perhaps he only heard weak performances of this monumental work?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It matters not to me whether the original or the orchestrated version…I have developed a serious case of this piece and have been ill with it now for over a week… nothing will serve but that I listen to it over and over again, continually more deeply appreciating the wondrous sections and structures of the movements, especially the third, with its excellent little march that appears and disappears like a leprechaun, not repeated even once, but wait, that movement holds a number of further exquisite delights. The only way to get the quartet out of my head will be to listen to some Bach or something, but for another few days I will yield to Brahms’s genius again and again and remain purely a creature of it.


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