Brahms was twenty-nine years old in 1862 when he composed the first version of this quintet. An uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms struggled to find the ideal instrumentation for this work, just as he had with his first piano concerto three years earlier. It was first incarnated as a quintet for two violins, viola, and two cellos, a version that Brahms destroyed in 1863 when he recast it as a sonata for two pianos. That version didn’t satisfy him either, though it survives as Op. 34b. This glorious music found its final expression as a piano quintet, which Brahms completed in 1864.
I was introduced to this piece when I was seventeen, through a 1964 Columbia LP featuring Rudolf Serkin and the Budapest String Quartet. Peter Serkin (born in 1947), famous son of a famous father, made this video with the Orion String Quartet in 2010 at New York City’s famed 92nd Street Y.
Whenever I listen to Brahms – not just this quintet, but any Brahms – I can’t escape the thought that, listening to his music, we are somehow ennobled. Something in us is beautified; our characters are made better. It’s not just that there is never anything cheap in Brahms’ music, though that is certainly true. There is a grandeur, a nobility that is altogether incompatible with anything base or unworthy. At the conclusion of a major work by Brahms, I feel like a better person.
The tempo indications for the four movements, and their start times in the video, are as follows:
I. Allegro non troppo (0:10)
II. Andante un poco adagio (13:50)
III. Scherzo: Allegro (23:55)
IV. Finale: Poco Sostenuto (32:25)
If you don’t have time to listen to all four movements, advance the timer to 23:55 and just listen to the Scherzo. The main theme of this movement (which makes its first appearance at 24:19) is one of the most glorious, majestic themes that Brahms – or anyone else – ever wrote. You can come back later to hear the rest.