Johannes Brahms completed his Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor in 1861. Though this work received mixed reviews by friends and critics alike, it has remained alive in the concert world. Throughout the twentieth century, its popularity continued to grow as the listening public came to recognize Brahms as perhaps the quintessential master of Romantic chamber music. His first quartet for piano, violin, viola, and cello harkens back to the music of Schubert, one of Brahms' favorite composers, as well as forward with inventiveness that inspired composers in the next century, especially Schoenberg. While his contemporaries were writing music that was an obvious break with the past, particularly Wagner, Brahms wrote in the old forms, which hung together with a pleasing and deceptive looseness, as did the works of Schubert. Scratching the surface of Brahms' first piano quartet reveals that the themes and textures do not hang together loosely at all. Everything is built out of thematic material, which is without precedent in chamber music. It is the kernel of what Schoenberg described as "developing variation" and prepares the way for atonality, which coheres only when all the material is in reference to itself. The G minor quartet is pure clarity in a way that did not exist before Brahms. This quartet was also the first chamber work of Brahms' that he played in public.
The first movement of the G minor quartet has the sweetness of heroic themes in repose, but it also simmers, at least in a good performance. In bad renditions of this work, the tension is ignored in favor of an empty niceness, which is certainly to be avoided. The second movement, an Intermezzo, is introspective and full of musical inquiry among the strings. Themes spread out searching for something, with a beautiful and mysterious effect. The Andante third movement has a dreamy grandness, which is normally an effect reserved for orchestral forces. The Hungarian, Rondo finale is pure fire, blasting through rousing themes with a concerted vigor.
Many generations after the work's inception, it has withstood the public's initial reservations. It should also be pointed out that other influential musicians thought it was pure genius. One great violinist regarded it as proof that Brahms was Beethoven's musical heir. There were many such reactions. Schoenberg liked it enough to orchestrate it. He gave his reasons for doing so as follows: "1. I like the piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always played very badly; the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted to hear everything...."