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Whether thinking of symphonies or chamber music, Johannes Brahms is said to have so feared Beethoven’s mastery that he claimed, “You do not know what it is like, hearing his footsteps constantly behind one.” This insecurity led him to destroy dozens of string quartets before releasing his first in 1873. The Smithsonian Chamber Music Society performs the later German’s lush yet economical third, “String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67.” Also performed is Bedrich Smetana’s “String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (‘From My Life’),” a heart-wrenching piece: It was composed in 1876—two years after the Czech composer was deafened by syphilis. Using folk music to tell the composer’s life story, the generally effusive piece grimly ends in a whistling high E—the note that constantly rang in the composer’s dead ears. Béla Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7” from 1908 is perhaps the most demanding of the evening’s music, but it may be the most rewarding. Though the Hungarian innovator only published six string quartets, they are considered his masterpieces. He too used folk melodies, though he distorted them via endless motivic mutations and contrapuntal complexities. There is less obvious beauty here than in Smetana’s or Brahms’ pieces, but Bartók’s opens a wide window on the beginnings of 20th-century composition. At 8 p.m. tonight and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Museum of American History’s Hall of Musical Instruments, 14th & Constitution Ave. NW. $19. (Christopher Porter)