- Expressive Forms in Brahms’s Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His “Werther” Quartet
In 1853, writing in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Robert Schumann famously expressed his opinion that Brahms was "fated to give us the ideal expression of the times" (translation by Malcolm MacDonald, Brahms [New York: Schirmer Books, 1990], p. 18). Such an expression indeed emerges in Brahms's piano quartet in C minor, op. 60, the Werther Quartet, which takes its name from Brahms's own characterization of it in letters to his friends Hermann Deiters and Theodore Billroth: "Imagine a man who is about to shoot himself, and for whom there is no other way out," and "An illustration, as it were, to the last chapter of the man in a blue swallow-tail coat and yellow waistcoat" (p. 1). The latter is an obvious reference to the tragic and quintessentially romantic figure of Goethe's Werther, a suicidal young man in love with the wife of an admired older friend.
Musicologists have often read into Brahms's statements a connection between the piano quartet, Werther, and Brahms's relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann. In Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His "Werther" Quartet, Peter H. Smith offers the first theoretical basis for the dramatic, suicidal content of the quartet. Although theoretical interpretations can be as subjective and controversial as expressive ones, Smith succeeds in making a compelling case by providing copious detail, reconciling multiple viewpoints, and qualifying analytic limitations.
Smith's purpose is "to engage the quartet as a case study for how it might be possible to steer a middle course between the old music theory, which tends to be purely analytical and formalist, and the new musicology, which often denies itself the insights of careful music analysis in the pursuit of critical interpretation" (p. 4). Thus he uses technical analysis to pursue questions of expression. In addition, he treats issues of biographical significance, artistic development, and Brahmsian style. Smith's approach is based on the premise that Brahms's style is characterized by a complex interaction of musical dimensions, or dimensional counterpoint, which produces multiple interpretations. Brahms "often creates discrepancies among locations of different types of critical events in the tonal plan, the beginning and ending points of thematic sections, changes in patterns of accompaniment and/or instrumentation, and large-scale instances of rhythmic-metric articulation" (p. 7). [End Page 372]
To this end, in part 1, Smith compares the piano quartet to other works of Brahms and to works of other Viennese composers in order to illustrate both its idiosyncratic and representative qualities. Although the theories of Heinrich Schenker are central to Smith's analysis, he also discusses their limitations and reconciles them with the theories of Arnold Schoenberg and more recent approaches. Smith demonstrates the benefits of multiple viewpoints in part 2, where he explores the expressive motivations for the idiosyncrasies of the piano quartet. His interpretation is refreshingly undogmatic, comprehensive, and original. He provides a theoretical basis for stylistic deviations that produce an extreme expression of tragedy, suggesting both the sorrows of Werther and Brahms's frustrations with the Schumanns.
To place the Werther quartet in the context of Brahms's instrumental works as well as the Viennese tradition, Smith notes Brahms's choice of C minor, a key associated with issues of fate. He offers a detailed comparison to other C-minor works of Brahms: the first symphony, the string quartet, op. 51, no. 1, and the piano trio, op. 101. Eschewing the tradition of transcendence into C major, the relentlessness of C minor in the piano quartet gives it a fundamentally tragic character. For example, the recapitulation of the first movement includes a return to the ominous octaves of the movement's opening measures, extensive recomposition of the primary material, and an unprecedented tonicization of the major dominant, with which the movement is fated to...