At the time Brahms wrote his String Quintet No. 1 in F major (1882), the models for the genre were exemplified in the works of Schubert and Mozart. Schubert calls for a configuration of two violins, one viola, and two cellos; Mozart calls for two violins, two violas, and one cello, the instrumentation adopted by Brahms for his First Quintet.
The three-movement Quintet is generated entirely from ideas contained in the central Grave ed appassionato movement, which in turn evolved from a long-aborted piano work. In the mid-1850s Brahms had written a sarabande and gavotte for piano in a neo-Baroque style, the manuscripts of which Brahms eventually burned (along with a great quantity of other material). What the composer did not count on, however, was that a number of his friends and professional acquaintances retained copies of the same work. It was not until the twentieth century that scholars unearthed the original piano pieces and discovered their connection to the String Quintet.
In neither the piano works nor the Quintet's middle movement is the Baroque influence difficult to hear. With the original tempi intact, the middle movement functions in much the same manner as a scherzo and trio. Brahms creates further tension by casting the two dances in the keys of A major and C sharp major, respectively, creating conflict and ambiguity as to which tonal center will prevail; ultimately, the A major sarabande/scherzando emerges victorious.
The entire Quintet is a bizarre collection whose very nature would seem to defy cohesion; still, it does indeed hold together, a testament to the composer's masterful handling of its diverse elements. The thoroughly Romantic opening movement is not particularly unusual for Brahms, and there is little in it to betray the work's "Baroque" origins. The third movement is more forthright in its presentation of the source material, here treated with distinctive humor as a collection of Baroque textures that fall all over one another in a sort of organized chaos. It begins with a fugal subject, or fragment of a subject, that attempts to unfold but cannot get to the point of establishing rhythmic surety. Despite the fugal subject's by-the-book opening in a pattern of tonic-dominant entrances, the accompanying chords that are supposed to provide a propulsive rhythmic edge keep coming in at the "wrong" time, diluting the flow. This continues until the accompaniment assumes a greater normalcy; by then, however, it is too late and the fugue has given up. The music assumes a homophonic, fully nineteenth century guise that clearly embodies the music of Brahms' own time. The work as a whole seems to be the composer's humorous retraction of his musical revivalism, a flight of historical fancy that ends as he is finally wrenched back into his own century.