JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Pieces Op. 4, Op.10, Op.24, Op.119
This work, written when Brahms was eighteen, is a highly effective concert piece, bursting with youthful energy. The music of the main Scherzo occurs three times with intervening Trios in E flat major and B major, the latter marked molto espressivo. There are many similarities to the Scherzi of Chopin, particularly if one compares the second Trio in B major with that composer’s second Scherzo in B flat minor, Op.31. However, Brahms is reputed to have denied any knowledge of the Polish master’s Scherzi at the time of composition (1851).
Four Ballades Op.10
No.1 in D minor ('Edward')
The Four Ballades Op.10 have often puzzled musical commentators and analysts, although much of their inspiration and ‘program’ must surely relate to the tragedy of Schumann's insanity and attempted suicide a few months prior to their composition. Brahms’s friendship and indebtedness toward the stricken Schumann, together with his admiration and deepening attachment toward Schumann’s wife, Clara, must have profoundly coloured the creative output of the 21-year-old composer.
These influences are widely recognised in relation to the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op.15. Perhaps they deserve even more recognition in relation to Op.10 in which many Schumannesqe moments occur, particularly in the second and fourth pieces.
The ‘Edward’ Ballade is the only piece of Op.10 assigned an explicit program by the composer. Brahms follows the structure of the original Scottish ballad in the first page, cast as it is in the form of a dialogue in which Edward’s mother questions her son, while Edward first dissimulates, then confesses that he has just killed his father, and departs cursing his mother-who apparently put Edward up to the crime in the first place.
The ‘confession’ in Brahms’s hands takes the form of an extended crescendo focused in D major and built upon a hammering ‘fate’ rhythmic figure alla Beethoven, climaxing in an impassioned fortissimo statement of the music from Edward’s half of the opening dialogue. Brahms closes the piece with a vision of the mother left alone, contemplating the consequences of her counsels in horrified desolation, complete with pounding heartbeat!
From a psychological viewpoint much requires explanation as to why Brahms, the disciplined apostle of pure and absolute music, should have been moved at all to compose a musical representation of such a violently sordid tale, and to do so with such terrifying passion as almost to suggest a personal confession. Perhaps the young Brahms, witnessing the inevitable fate overtaking his musical ‘father’, Schumann, came to bear inwardly a load of gratuitous guilt as he pondered what the future might hold eventually for himself and for the woman who was soon to become Schumann’s widow. The composition of the ‘Edward’ Ballade may have afforded vicarious release for a personal inner turmoil that Brahms could never bring himself openly to confess.
Following the bleak D minor chords at the close of the ‘Edward’ Ballade, the opening D major tonality of the Second Ballade comes as a burst of sunshine, the warm radiance of which dominates the opening and closing sections. An aggressively rhythmic central section provides a vivid contrast, the material being repeated following a somewhat enigmatic staccato passage in 6/4 time which hovers uncertainly between frightening suspense and comic humour. While there are some similarities between this contrasting rhythmic section and the climax of the ‘Edward’ Ballade-the hammering chords and conflicting cross rhythms-the complete serenity of the remainder of the Second Ballade seems to belie a programmatic connection with the tale of Edward.
The third and most obscure of these Ballades might possibly relate to the well-documented aural hallucinations experienced by Schumann in which he was either comforted by angels’ songs or tormented by devils. Brahms certainly conjures up some devilish effects in this restless Ballade, and there is a clear representation of a disembodied angelic chorus in the central section. An echo of this chorale closes the piece after the devils have been spirited away.
A comforting warmth, tinged with nostalgic regret, pervades the pure song with which the Fourth Ballade opens. The second theme-marked Più Lento with instructions that the piece should be played with the most intimate sentiment but without making the melody too marked-is closely related both in melody and registration to the Romanze in F sharp major, Op.28 No.2 published by Schumann in 1840 (to facilitate comparison between the two works, Schumann’s Romanze is included in this recording immediately following Brahms's Op.10 No.4). The deliberately muted delivery of this mournful song may be interpreted at two possible levels: it might be seen as a homage to a composer whose song was already approaching extinction; or it might also be a clandestine love song from the emergent composer to a woman who could never be his bride. When the opening theme makes its second appearance it is followed by a chorale-like transformation in which the mood becomes that of a requiem for the composer's doomed friend. By the time the second theme reappears it is as if all hope has been finally abandoned. At the close the warm opening song makes two vain attempts to break through the gloom, only to be submerged each time in an atmosphere of grimly controlled despair and sadness.
“Why does your brand so drop with blood,
Your hawk’s blood was never so red,
“Your steed was old, and ye have more,
“And what penance will ye dree for that,
“And what will ye do with your towers and your hall,
“And what will ye leave to your bairns and your wife,
“And what will you leave to your own mother dear,
25 Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel, Op.24
In March 1860, the 26-year-old Brahms signed a public declaration dissociating himself from the modern tendencies of the Wagner-Liszt New German School of representational music. This reactionary gesture is now viewed as an exercise in ineffectual folly rather than as a defining moment in musical aesthetic history.
Far more to the point was the conservative manifesto that Brahms constructed the following year in his monumental set of Handel Variations Op.24, crowned with a mighty fugue that remains unsurpassed in the entire contrapuntal literature.
Even a target of the original declaration, Richard Wagner, was moved to admit that Brahms’s Op.24 showed what could be done with the old forms by a composer who knew his business. The result is an emotionally rich and varied masterpiece of musical architecture that utterly transcends the scholarly contrapuntal threads from which it is woven.
Four Pieces, Op.119
Three Intermezzi in B minor, E minor and C major
With his Op.119 Brahms bade farewell in 1892 to the solo pianoforte genre. The three Intermezzi are united by common threads of understatement and tonal experimentation that appear to anticipate the impressionism of Debussy, particularly in the first piece.
The E minor Intermezzo contrasts an harmonically astringent opening with a sweetly diatonic lullaby, while the third piece-stylistically the Scherzo of the set-contrives its understatement through placement of the melody at the base of the right hand chords.
The Rhapsodie opens in a resplendent valedictory mood, this material recurring around intervening episodes which look back over the composer's life work. In accord with his philosophy, Brahms allows the splendour of the final ritornello to disintegrate in struggle and conflict, ending in a defiant E flat minor.
Brian Chapman ©1997