In 1785 the composer/entrepreneur Franz Anton Hoffmeister had a good idea for how his new music publishing house could compete with the established Viennese publishers. He would sell sheet music for use by proficient amateurs at their chamber music soirées in private homes, not only in Vienna but also throughout Europe. For a wealthy family it was prestigious to own one of the new-fangled fortepianos, which were starting to take over from the harpsichord.
Hoffmeister seized the opportunity of selling quartets for a new combination of instruments, combining the piano with three sizes of string instrument – violin, viola and cello – particularly when written by a famous composer. Four years earlier Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had moved to Vienna, and Hoffmeister commissioned three piano quartets from him.
After Mozart had written the first, a quartet in G minor, Hoffmeister cancelled the rest of the order, considering the piece so difficult that he would be unable to sell as many copies as he had planned. The first piano quartet ever had nevertheless been composed. Mozart clearly liked the combination of instruments, and nine months later he composed another, this time in E flat major, and was emulated by posterity: Beethoven, Schumann, Dvořák and Mahler all wrote piano quartets.
Johannes Brahms also wrote three quartets for piano, violin, viola and cello. When he visited Vienna for the first time in 1862, the city had lost some of its enthusiasm for contemporary composers. In 1815 about eighty per cent of the music performed at the Musikverein was by living composers: by 1850 the situation had reversed, and eighty per cent was by deceased masters.
It was in this context Brahms needed to make his breakthrough, and he wisely chose music to appeal to an audience already familiar with the piano quartets of Mozart and Beethoven. In particular Brahms gained the favour of Viennese audiences with the gypsy revels in the final movement of the G minor quartet. He played the piano part along with string players from the renowned Hellmesberger Quartet. In the finale the cellist was so enthusiastic that he broke the bridge of his instrument, doubtless bringing further publicity for the young composer.
‘Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas’, wrote Sergei Prokofiev in his autobiography in 1941. ‘After once hearing an unsuccessful piece for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes.’
No sooner said than done: Prokofiev composed his Sonata for Two Violins in 1932 while on holiday in St Tropez, a commission for the inaugural concert of the Paris music society Triton. He composed it according to the old sonata da chiesa form in four movements: slow, fast, slow, fast.
However, the Paris performance was pre-empted in Moscow in November 1932 by two members of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitri Tsyganov and Vladimir Shirinsky. The planned western premiere took place two months later, since when the sonata has been standard repertoire for many violinists, reserved for when they wish to perform with only one colleague.