About this work
The piano was the instrument with which Brahms felt most comfortable, and he hesitated to publish chamber music for strings, with or without piano, for many years. He generally asked violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) for assessments of his works for strings before they were printed. The failure of a string quintet version of the Piano Quintet, Op. 34, rekindled his anxieties and he avoided writing for such forces until 1882, when he finished the Quintet, Op. 88. His second quintet, the Quintet for two violins, two violas and cello in G major, Op. 111, composed in the summer of 1890, was first performed in Vienna on November 11, 1890. Simrock in Berlin published the work in 1891.
Brahms intended the Quintet in G major, Op. 111, to be his last work. In December 1890 Brahms sent Simrock an alteration to the finale of the quintet, including this instruction: "With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop." The following spring he wrote out his will and decided to concentrate only on unpublished works he deemed worthwhile, dispensing with the others and with composing anew. Brahms, however, did not stick to his resolution. Nevertheless, permeated with an Austrian vivacity, the Op. 111 quintet gives no hint of being planned as a valedictory work.
The opening of the first movement, the cello tune included, derives from sketches Brahms had made in Italy for a fifth symphony. Laboring under a tremolo accompaniment from the other four instruments, the cello is entrusted with the arpeggiated, leaping main theme. As the sonata-form movement progresses, the theme dissolves into a transition to the dominant, D major, and the second group of themes, the first of which consists of a three-note figure that evokes the air of a Viennese waltz. The development section, beginning on B flat major, initially stresses the opening arpeggio of the main theme, but quickly moves on to develop segments of the second group and the transition. As is often the case with Brahms, the entrance of the recapitulation is disguised through new instrumentation, beginning with the third measure of the theme. Whereas the cello plumbed the warm depths of its register at the beginning of the movement, here the violin soars high above the tremolo accompaniment. All the material of the second group is resolved to the tonic before the movement closes with a developmental coda.
Brahms' favorite stringed instrument, the viola, introduces the theme of the ensuing Adagio, cast in variation form in D minor. The variation technique is used more freely than in Brahms' earlier such movements. Wistful and transparent, the Adagio is marked by unexpected shifts between major and minor and finally closes on D major. The composer's long-time friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg found the Adagio and the Minuet much to her liking, recognizing in them "such perfect unity of emotion, vigor and effect." Fragments of first-movement themes appear in the opening melody of the minuet-like third movement, set in G minor, while the coda revisits the G major trio. The fourth movement is peppered with a Hungarian csárdás flavor, especially its animated coda.