Johannes Brahms: String Quintet op.34

Transcribing Brahms

The Piano Quintet has always been one of my very favourite pieces of music but I have come to realise that many musicians consider it a "flawed masterpiece". When I once played it in the same concert with the g-minor Piano Quartet I started to understand why someone would think so: While in the Quartet one has the feeling that Brahms is a perfect master of his ensemble, the Quintet does not have the same feeling of inevitability, one could imagine the piece written for some other ensemble. I still feel the greatness of the music, but do admit that there is something very different about this piece than most of his chamber music.

The fact that Brahms chose to use two cellos in the original String Quintet is a sign that he had some kind of relation to the Schubert C-major quintet in his mind. There aren't any direct musical quotes from the Schubert Quintet, but in this version one becomes very aware of several textural similarities which naturally will be impossible to see in the Piano Quintet version. Finding this relation was another reason for making this transcription.

Neither of the existing versions is quite as inventive in their use of instruments as one would expect from an original piece by Brahms, even at 29.  This is evident if one compares the piece with the the three Piano Quartets or the String Quintets with two violas, which could never have been written for another ensemble. In the Piano Quintet the piano is treated in a much more straightforward way than what he usually does.

There is hardly anything aside some doublings in the piano part that would be impossible to play with five string players. When I noticed this, I became intrigued to try whether it would be possible for me to reconstruct it to the original string quintet format and if that would answer some of the questions concerning the piece. I was aware that an earlier version had been made by Sebastian H. Brown during his service in the World War II, but as I couldn’t get hold of a score of it soon enough to satisfy my curiosity I set off to work on my own version. I based my version on the Breitkopf & Härtel original edition of the Piano Quintet. 

At first I just experimented on whether this reconstruction/transcription would make sense at all and saw that it was less impossible that I would have thought. Even if all the important parts can be easily divided between five string players, it doesn’t mean that the reconstructing of the String Quintet was an easy task. One has to re-distribute all the parts to keep the writing in style with Brahms’s string writing. In the end, all the parts undergo major changes and the new second cello part is a combination of the old cello, piano left hand and sometimes viola parts. It becomes the new bass line of the piece.


After finishing my first draft I took a look at the older reconstruction by Mr. Brown. I saw that there is hardly a measure where we found exactly the same solution. Already for the very opening we had chosen quite different approach. There are countless occasions where one can’t possibly be certain what Brahms’s own first idea would have been. I tried to keep the texture as light as possible and follow what to me seemed Brahms’s way of writing for a string ensemble but, naturally, I could never pretend that this is how the original would have been. At the very least I have learned a great deal about how Brahms wrote for string instruments.

There are many passages that feel very natural with the String Quintet, the luxurious sound of the trio of the third movement or the quiet beauty of the opening of the last movement. These are moments in which one can be fairly confident about the sound the original version would have had and the piano automatically transforms the music into something else. Naturally, the piano also brings a kind of an outside element to the piece that is very interesting, but I find knowing the "original" sound is very helpful.

One can easily see why Joachim would have found the original version awkward; the key of f-minor alone is very difficult with no piano to provide harmonic stability. All the parts are quite difficult, although not more so than in Beethoven’s or Brahms’s String Quartets. So, as Joachim put it, "with vigorous playing we should be able to pull it off" and it shouldn’t sound any more a transcription than the Piano Quintet does. It will certainly need more than the two rehearsals that Joachim had before playing it to Brahms

Was it really necessary to make this transcription? I can only hope that by knowing the two transcriptions by Brahms and this reconstruction of the original version one can appreciate all the genius of this music and peek into the anxieties of a young composer. Could Brahms have been wrong in destroying the String Quintet? Maybe he overreacted hearing a piece that wasn't yet fully rehearsed. What if he hadn't destroyed all the early String Quartets? Would Brahms approve of making this reconstruction? Most probably not.

The first performance of this String Quintet version was given at Domaine Forget in Quebec in May 2006. The music for the String Quintet version is now available through the web-site.

© Anssi Karttunen, 2007

Some recent performances:

Great Lakes Festival, June 2007

Yellow Barnes Festival, July 2007

Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, July 2007

Centro Cultural Belem in Lisbon, April 2008

Auditorio Nacional de Madrid,  June 2008

Les Arcs Festival, July 2010

Esbjerg Festival, August 2010


How did it sound originally?

The birth of the Quintet

Johannes Brahms wrote his Quintet 0p.34 for two violins, viola and two cellos in September 1862 in Hamburg; he was 29 years old. As always, he sent it to his closest musician friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim for approval. Both replied at first enthusiastically, especially Clara, who called it a masterpiece. Joachim did warn from the beginning that the piece would not sound clear without “vigorous playing”. Both of them found the piece musically perfect, any problems they found were with the instrumentation.

Joachim rehearsed the Quintet twice with friends and played it through to Brahms in Hanover during the spring 1863. For some reason this discouraged Brahms so much that he reworked it as a Sonata for two pianos and destroyed the String Quintet manuscript. He gave the first performance of the Sonata with Carl Tausig in Vienna in April 1964. Clara Schumann and Hermann Levi played through the new version of the piece in June 1864 and in concert three times to great success, but both found it felt like a transcription and suggested to Brahms to make yet another version. Levi proposed Piano Quintet as a possibility, Clara went even further, saying that it needed a full orchestra. Brahms finally went with the Piano Quintet and this version was finished in October 1864. We are lucky that he didn’t do away with the piece completely like he did with so many early string quartets.

Brahms himself was fond of the two piano version and when the Piano Quintet op. 34 was published he had the Sonata for two pianos published as op. 34 bis.