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.”

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