Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet

Music: Johannes Brahms (Piano Quartet, No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, 1861, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg, 1937)
Choreography: George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Staging: Francia Russell
Costume Design: Judanna Lynn
Lighting Design: Randall G. Chiarelli
Duration: 48 minutes
Premiere: April 21, 1966; New York City Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: February 28, 1985

Kaori Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton in
Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. Photo © Angela Sterling

Balanchine choreographed Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet in 1966 as the first full-company work for New York City Ballet after its move from the City Center of Music and Drama to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The dance is set to Johannes Brahms' Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1861), as orchestrated in 1937 by the expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. Although Balanchine felt that chamber music was generally unsuitable for ballet, stating that most pieces were "too long, with too many repeats, and meant for small rooms, "the Schoenberg orchestration broadened the musical palette of Brahms’ quartet. The choreographer recognized the possibilities for dance in its four diverse movements and went on to make four self-contained works—none of the dancers return from previous movements—each chock full of dancing. With no plot, the choreographic flavor of each movement is dictated by the music.

Schoenberg had his own motives for orchestrating the Brahms quartet. In a letter to the critic Alfred Frankenstein, he gave his reasons for making the transcription: "(1) I like the piece; (2) it is very seldom played; and (3) it is always very badly played because, the better the pianist the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted for once to hear everything, and this I achieved."

Colleen Neary, former soloist with New York City Ballet and former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, has written with enthusiasm: “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet cannot be defined as one ballet, but as four ballets within one. With each movement portraying a difference in style and mood, it lends itself to the viewer’s palate, similar, similar to a four-course meal finishing with a grand dessert. The first movement, Allegro, introduces a full corps de ballet, solo woman, and principal couple. From the outset, its beauty is evident in the patterns, structure, musicality and energy. The beauty and musicality of the choreography has a grand and regal feeling.

“The second movement, Intermezzo, built around a center couple and three female demi-soloists, is a small piece of Romanticism. The breath of the movement is light and like a cloud that never seems to touch the ground. The pas de deux, although technically quite demanding, has the ease that only Balanchine could so masterfully achieve.

“The third movement, Andante, is elegant and regal in its demeanor. A center couple is the focal point, surrounded by three solo women and a corps of twelve women. Its pas de deux and solos have a certain lyricism and classicism that refer back to Balanchine’s upbringing and training in Imperial Russia.

“Last, but definitely not least, is the fourth movement, Rondo alla Zingarese. Its feeling on costumes, choreography and mood is gypsy. Wild and exhilarating would describe this section. Complete different again in style, it leaves you on the edge of your seat with excitement. Dancing as part of the twelve couples, and later in my career as the lead woman with my husband, Thordal Christensen, in Pacific Northwest Ballet, was probably the most fun I have had in my dancing career.”

Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of New York City Ballet, wrote that the dances "seem steeped in the apprehension and change permeating the sunset of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They suggest a world drunk on 'wine and roses.'"

Notes by Doug Fullington.

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