Brahms began work on what was to become the Piano Quintet in 1862. He had recently visited Vienna and eventually made it his home. The work was originally written for string quintet; two violins, one viola and two cellos. Brahms was a great admirer of Schubert and he may have used Schubert's String Quintet as a model for his own. The following year Brahms revised the work and turned it into a sonata for two pianos. This was not the only one of his early works that went through growing pains, as his first piano concerto began life as a symphony and was also rewritten as a sonata for two pianos. His great friend Clara Schumann expressed admiration for the two piano version, but suggested that it would benefit by being re-scored for different instruments. Finally in 1864 Brahms rewrote it as for piano and string quartet. Brahms was but 31 years old when the final version of the quintet was written, but the two piano version must have satisfied Brahms as well for that version was also published. The two years the Brahms worked on this piece entailed a struggle over what instrumental forces to use. The final version of the work had very few actual musical changes to it from the two piano version.
The Piano Quintet is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro non troppo - A fragment of what is to become the first theme is stated in unison by the instruments to open the movement. A dramatic section leads to the theme being played out completely and with more force. The second theme is a lyrical contrast to the first, but there is still a feeling of tension. There is a third theme that appears towards the end of the exposition that relieves some of the drama of the previous themes. The exposition is repeated. The development section has fragments of the first two themes slowly play off of each other until they slowly build tension that leads to the recapitulation. After the recapitulation, there is a brief calm before the storm of the coda that dramatically ends the movement.
II. Andante, un poco adagio - A Schubertian theme begins the movement. Brahms makes variations on the theme as it plays out. A middle section of gentle music leads to a repeat of the main theme which continues to be developed until the movement gently ends.
III. Scherzo : Allegro - The movement begins with a low C on the cello played pizzicato as a rising melody is played over it. A rhythmic section follows, after which a march-like motive plays. These three motives make up the scherzo itself. They are repeated and developed until at the end of the scherzo the strings play a searing two sixteenth note fragment that alternates between D-flat and C as the piano plays C major chords. The trio is in C major and is inspired by the march-like motive of the scherzo. This scherzo is one of the most impassioned movements that Brahms ever wrote. Near the end the strings lend an atmosphere of violence to the scherzo before the sudden resolution of it with the end chord in C major.
IV. Finale: Poco sostenuto - Allegro non troppo - Presto, non troppo - The movement begins with a slow, mysterious introduction that builds in intensity until the movement proper begins with a theme that has the mood of a Hungarian Dance. This theme is varied, which leads to a more lyrical second theme. The next theme is a lively dance. These three themes are repeated and varied as they vie for supremacy throughout the movement. The competition of themes is brought to a sudden halt as a short coda returns the mood to tragic as the work ends.