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Fauré and Brahms find their voices free from the spectre of Beethoven

The two Piano Quartets by Fauré and Brahms to be played in Event Four are connected by a reaction to the spectre of Beethoven whose awesome presence overshadowed European musical culture across much of the nineteenth century. Both were young composers of genius but struggling to put a form and technique to the music that they both intuitively knew lay within their deep mind, as yet untapped, still shrouded. Both had emotionally charged relationships breaking down – for better or worse. Both were fine pianists performing professionally. Both were imbued with the longue durée of their national musical culture. Of course, Bach and Beethoven were embedded in the future and both Fauré and Brahms knew this and revered them. At the start of their composing careers, however, the question was how to find their own voice in the shadow of the iconic Beethoven. With Fauré it was the pursuit of a French national musical culture that faced him. With Brahms it was how to find a way out from the shadow of the German master. Fauré’s and Brahms’s Piano Quartets are among the first fruits of their answers and within which they both discovered compositional techniques and ideas that came to define their music. Their initial soul searching in the end unveiled each man’s genius.


For Fauré a renaissance of French music became an urgent project after the defeat of the French army, ended the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. The sight of Prussian soldiers marching down the Champs Élysées spurred the search for a French national musical style as a reaction to German formalism. The leading force in this movement was the Société Nationale de Musique Français, founded by Saint-Saëns in February, 1871, a few days before the German occupation of Paris. Fauré was the most important figure in the new organisation.

In the Piano Quartet, begun in 1876, but not premiered until 1880, we hear a number of key elements in Fauré’s music that he brought to the table in the rebirth of French music. First was his endless resourcefulness in harmony – unexpected progressions and modulations (key changes), all within the bounds of traditional tonality. A second feature was Fauré’s melodic invention. His genius is built on subtle, filigree melodies that seem to grow sinuously out of his harmonic scheme. A third feature of Fauré’s compositional method was his use of piano arpeggios and other broken figures to establish a sort of fluid counterpoint on which his music seems to float. He was a gifted pianist and all his chamber music includes the piano. The only exception was his last work, the string quartet in E minor, Op. 121. In a letter to his wife he wrote “I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified.” 

Nevertheless, age seventy-nine  Fauré poured out a lifetime of experience in his quartet. He had a reverence for the past but his harmonic and melodic innovations became very influential and alongside his pupil Ravel, and with Debussy and others he was the harbinger of a  French ‘new school’.  Fauré's quiet strength and his commitment to innovation, independence and integrity laid the foundations for many crucial developments in European music. He was open-minded and, despite having fought in the Franco-Prussian war, he held Beethoven in high esteem. This is evident in the Preface he wrote in Josephe de Marliave’s book on Beethoven’s string quartets, personally shouldering the “sad and honoured privilege” of writing about the work of a genius whose musical output was cut short by his early death (incidentally both composers shared the affliction of gradual hearing loss and eventual deafness).

Brahms, had a different challenge. How to break out from under the spell of his revered compatriot who so dominated  German musical culture. He wrote over 100 chamber music works in his early days but only a quarter of his output survived his intense self-criticism. The less than confidant young Johannes Brahms managed to thwart this intimidating presence by waiting until he felt more able to write the symphonies and quartets that he knew lay within. In the meantime he honed his skills through works in other forms not linked to Beethoven. These compositions were able to stand on their own merits and through them Brahms developed the conviction he needed to come out from under the shadow of the great master. His String Sextet No.1 (Op. 18) will be played in EVENT FIVE, the final concert of York Chamber Music Festival 2024. The twenty-seven-year-old Brahms opted for a sextet exactly because of its rarity. Adding a cello and viola to the standard string quartet produced an ensemble with a beautiful autumnal glow. Brahms particularly loved the warmth of tone and sonority of the cello. His choice of the cello for his first published sonata (op.38) reflects his lifelong affinity with the sunset quality of the instrument and when he finally wrote his masterful symphonies can be heard time and time again in the cello melodies that abound.

At the time the Op.18 sextet was written, young Brahms was spending his summer as music master of the royal court of Detmold, where his duties were sufficiently limited to allow plenty of time for country walking in the local woods. Perhaps that mellow atmosphere contributed to the composition’s gentle charms. But there may be another reason for the music’s character. The sextet is a harbinger of the passion that infuses so much of his music, perhaps in this case with a backstory because he was writing the piece in the aftermath of breaking his engagement to the singer Agathe von Seibold. Perhaps he was relieved, “I have shaken off my last love”, (even though he encoded her name in the sextet). This is not a heartbreak piece but one of glorious release and invention.

The epic Piano Quartet in G minor (Op. 25) followed on. Both the sextet and the piano quartet are wonderful statements of Brahms’s genius. Before he left his native Hamburg for a new life in Vienna he composed the Piano Quartet which was premiered at a private concert in November 1862 with his close friend Clara Schumann as pianist. The opening movement veers unsettlingly between keys unrelated to G minor but eventually settles on a strong G minor. The movement then demonstrates two of Brahms’s most influential compositional techniques; the use of rhythm to alleviate lengthy passagework; so we hear cross rhythms (two beats in one instrument against three in another). A second technique is the use of small cells of notes that are recycled to suggest musical progress and evolution. Schoenberg called this technique ‘developing variation’. Everything in the piano quartet is constructed on thematic material that is without precedent in chamber music. Schoenberg argued that this method of composition was preparing the way for atonality, in the sense that the whole only makes sense when all the material is heard in reference to itself. While other contemporaries, notably Wagner, were blazing a futuristic trail on the grand scale Brahms also spoke in epic proportions on the chamber music canvass with a clarity and newness that had not been heard before.

So it was that in his late twenties made his first professional visit to Vienna armed with introductions from Clara Schumann and other supporters. Included in his recitals and concerts of his own music was the Piano Quartet in G Minor, a work of epic proportions, one of the first works of his flowering. Brahms himself played the piano at the Vienna premiere. And the rest, as they say, is history.






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