Commentary on Samuel Ng’s review of Peter H. Smith’s Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Eric Wen


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Received February 2008
Volume 14, Number 1, March 2008
Copyright © 2008 Society for Music Theory

[1] I would like to address an analytic idea proposed by Samuel Ng in his review of Peter Smith’s monograph on Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor. In his discussion of the opening of the first movement, Ng takes issue with Smith’s reading of the G-major chord in bar 21 as the dominant. Instead, he says that the appearance of this chord comes as an unexpected surprise. Not only does he call it “the first striking harmonic event of the piece,” but he also later describes it as “a truly expressive gesture that eludes virtually any structural explanation.” Furthermore, he suggests that the G chord appearing two bars later (bar 23) is the more natural continuation. Ng attempts to find an integral relationship between form and content, and to “reveal structural intricacies that may well embody expressive connotations.” His analytic reading of the opening theme is, however, surely incorrect. Not only is the G-major chord in bar 21 the long-expected dominant, but it is the G chord that offers the unexpected surprise. I wish to address this issue not just in order to present yet another alternative reading, but because the correct interpretation of the opening of this Brahms Piano Quartet evokes an important Classical tonal procedure that both Smith and Ng overlook in their analyses.

[2] One of the striking features at the beginning of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor is the quadrupled B that appears in bar 11, after the half cadence on the dominant. It transposes the four-octave C at the start of the piece down a whole step, and ushers in the return of the opening theme in the key of B-flat minor. Before examining the tonal structure of the antecedent part of the Quartet (bars 1–31), I would like to discuss the convention of this opening gesture.

[3] The opening theme of the Brahms is modeled after the Classical construction of two parallel phrases in which the second repeats the opening at a different pitch level. The most usual procedure is to repeat the second phrase a whole step above the initial statement. In Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D, K. 576, for example, the rising arpeggio of the opening theme announced in D major is answered by another statement of the arpeggiated theme in E minor (Example 1). In order to avoid parallel fifths and octaves in the voice-leading from I to II, a dominant chord appearing at the end of the opening phrase serves as a voice-leading corrective. The beginning of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, op. 73, has a similar construction, but here a B-minor chord, resulting from a 5–6 contrapuntal motion, breaks up the potential parallels between the two statements of the opening theme in D major and E minor (Example 2).