Brahms - Piano Quartet op. 60 Modulation Analysis

Hello reader and welcome to yet another Modulation of the Week! This week I’ll be talking about a very special modulation from the First movement of the Piano Quartet in C minor No. 3 Op. 60 by Johannes Brahms. This piece is also known as the Werther Quartet. Quite astonishing piece of music and if you haven’t heard it yet, then I highly recommend to do it as soon as possible. 🙂

Piano Quartet Op. 60 - Strange Things Happened

Now, the modulation in question occurs at the very beginning of the first movement. After the initial 10 measures in the original C minor key, the musical flow moves to B-flat minor. This, however, is not a modulation. It is merely a tonal leap because no common or any other chords were being used for its execution. The beginnings of both phrases suggest a transposition. The real thing occurs in the measures 25-26, just before the end of the introduction of the sonata form. The musical flow modulates from B-flat minor to C minor. Nevertheless, before the musical flow reaches these measures, something very strange happens (Example 1).

Example 1

Firstly, at the 17th measure of the Piano Quartet a sequence of secondary dominants (blue color) can be found. Its end on the dominant seventh chord leads music to a G-B-D chord which does not belong (diatonically) to the B-flat minor key. To make it even crazier, its resolution is a Gb-Bb-Db chord. It is however the VI scale degree chord in B-flat minor. The question arises – how to connect these two chords? Both are Major chords and are in half-step relation. The only logical answer is that the G-B-D chord is actually the Phrygian chord of the VI scale degree chord (Gb-Bb-Db). It is just like the secondary dominant, but it is not a dominant – it is Phrygian. Although this is not as common, the composers of the Romantic era used it occasionally. Now, after the arrival of the VI chord, the musical flow goes to the Cadential 6/4 and followed by the dominant chord. And that is where the modulation begins (Example 1).

Unusual Chromantic Modulation

The modulation in measures 25-26 is chromatic. The dominant chord of the B-flat minor (F-A-C) will change its two notes and its structure (F#-Ab-C) and becomes the vii/V in the C minor.  However, that chord in C minor in measure 26 is not in a root for that type of chord. Its diminished third (F#-Ab) suggests the use of an altered #IV which should be used as an augmented sixth (the Italian 6th), respectively German 6/5 if used as a seventh chord (Example 1).

Brahms however used it as a standard chord with it root in the lowest voice. It is important to notice this because theoretical guidelines written in our books (cannot say that for all, but the large number of them) would say that it would not be correct using this kind of chord in this position in your harmonic exercise. They basically neglect the fact that composers used these kinds of chords in their actual music.  

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