Brahms originally intended for this quintet, completed in 1890, to mark his retirement from composing. Later he would reverse the retirement decision, publishing the peerless treasures that come to mind when we hear the phrase “late Brahms”: the introspective character pieces for piano, a menagerie of poignant chamber works highlighting the clarinet, the Four Serious Songs, a sobering anthology of organ preludes; subtle works (but powerful) that comprise the epilogue to his historic career. In 1890, though, the quintet seemed the final platform for Brahms to showcase his formidable powers in their ultimate form.
Because counterpoint was one of the most developed among these powers, we would expect to encounter top-notch contrapuntal treatments in this capstone composition. Sure enough, Brahms announces his polyphonic inheritance with characteristic acumen:
Peep the kaleidoscopic interweave of voices, and relish the blossoming effusion of imitations hurtling into the violin’s oscillating octaves. This also gives a good idea of the predominate character of the first movement: vigorous, unrelenting appassionata. The whole thing kicks off with a long and athletic cello melody, difficult in its own right and made more demanding by the need to overbalance the violins and violas, who are marked at forte:
Even Bobby McFerrin prefers a little liquid courage before attempting that one. (Brahms’s friends pleaded with him to mark the accompaniment at a quieter dynamic, or to thin the texture by removing the violas. Brahms, in typical fashion, stoutly ignored the advice he had solicited.)
Back to counterpoint. A few minutes into the piece, when things have temporarily calmed down a little, we hear a sequence whose melody emphasizes a rising 3rd followed by a falling 7th. Beneath, the violas maintain forward momentum with a “turnaround” figure – three downward steps are countered immediately by two steps back upward, all in parallel thirds:
Lovely to be sure, and damned fine counterpoint on its own. But this is merely preparatory. The main event happens when this material reappears, shimmering and transfigured, at the beginning of the development:
There’s a lot going on here. For starters, the texture itself is incomparably gorgeous; it seems to quiver under the spell of its own magic. But that’s not enough for Herr Brahms; in addition to sheer sonic beauty, the melody is a canon, initially featuring the rising 3rd / falling 7th figure before proceeding to the “turnaround” figure, now in a slowed down form.
The rising 3rd / falling 7th figure is passed back and forth between first viola and first violin, with each new statement at a higher pitch level than the previous. In fact, this ascending viola-violin alternation masquerades as a melody all its own, floating higher and higher until it tickles Heaven’s undercarriage with a tender high G. But the falling 7th, though significantly obscured, is surely present.
There’s more than counterpoint to this piece – loads more. For example, these haunting and vagrant harmonies:
But in that twinkling canon, the veiled virtuosity verges on miraculous.