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Arthur Jussen – Johannes Brahms/ Intermezzo Opus 118 nr 2 (live @Bimhuis Amsterdam) with sheet music
Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) was a German composer, pianist, and conductor of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna. His reputation and status as a composer are such that he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of music, a comment originally made by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.
Brahms composed for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. An uncompromising perfectionist, Brahms destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.
Brahms has been considered, by his contemporaries and by later writers, as both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Classical masters. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar.
The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms’s works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers. Embedded within his meticulous structures, however, are deeply romantic motifs.
Style and influences
Brahms maintained a classical sense of form and order in his works, in contrast to the opulence of the music of many of his contemporaries. Thus, many admirers (though not necessarily Brahms himself) saw him as the champion of traditional forms and “pure music”, as opposed to the “New German” embrace of programme music.
Brahms venerated Beethoven; in the composer’s home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed, and some passages in his works are reminiscent of Beethoven’s style. Brahms’s First Symphony bears strongly the influence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as the two works are both in C minor and end in the struggle towards a C major triumph.
The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is also reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, and when this resemblance was pointed out to Brahms he replied that any dunce could see that. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was immediately hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. Indeed, the similarity of Brahms’s music to that of late Beethoven had first been noted as early as November 1853 in a letter from Albert Dietrich to Ernst Naumann.
Brahms was a master of counterpoint. “For Brahms, … the most complicated forms of counterpoint were a natural means of expressing his emotions,” writes Geiringer. “As Palestrina or Bach succeeded in giving spiritual significance to their technique, so Brahms could turn a canon in motu contrario or a canon per augmentationem into a pure piece of lyrical poetry.” Writers on Brahms have commented on his use of counterpoint.
For example, of Op. 9, Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Geiringer writes that Brahms “displays all the resources of contrapuntal art”. In the A major piano quartet Opus 26, Jan Swafford notes that the third movement is “demonic-canonic”, echoing Haydn’s famous minuet for string quartet called the ‘Witch’s Round’.” Swafford further opines that “thematic development, counterpoint, and form were the dominant technical terms in which Brahms… thought about music”.
Allied to his skill in counterpoint was his subtle handling of rhythm and meter. The New Grove Dictionary of Music speculates that his contact with Hungarian and gypsy folk music as a teenager led to “his lifelong fascination with the irregular rhythms, triplet figures and use of rubato” in his compositions. The Hungarian Dances are among Brahms’s most-appreciated pieces. According to Musgrave (1985, p. 269) “only one composer rivals him in the advanced nature of his rhythmic thinking, and that is Stravinsky.”
His consummate skills in counterpoint and rhythm are richly present in A German Requiem, a work that was partially inspired by his mother’s death in 1865 (at which time he composed a funeral march that was to become the basis of Part Two, “Denn alles Fleisch”), but which also incorporates material from a symphony which he started in 1854 but abandoned following Schumann’s suicide attempt. He once wrote that the Requiem “belonged to Schumann”. The first movement of this abandoned symphony was re-worked as the first movement of the First Piano Concerto.
Brahms loved the classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He especially admired Mozart, so much so that in his final years, he reportedly declared Mozart as the greatest composer. In January 10, 1896, Brahms conducted the Academic Festival Overture and both piano concertos in Berlin, and during the following celebration, Brahms interrupted Joachim’s toast with “Ganz recht; auf Mozart’s Wohl” (Quite right; here’s Mozart’s health).
Brahms also compared Mozart with Beethoven to the latter’s disadvantage, in a letter to Richard Heuberger, in 1896: “Dissonance, true dissonance as Mozart used it, is not to be found in Beethoven. Look at Idomeneo. Not only is it a marvel, but as Mozart was still quite young and brash when he wrote it, it was a completely new thing. You couldn’t commission great music from Beethoven, since he created only lesser works on commission—his more conventional pieces, his variations and the like.”
Brahms collected first editions and autographs of Mozart and Haydn’s works and edited performing editions. He studied the music of pre-classical composers, including Giovanni Gabrieli, Johann Adolph Hasse, Heinrich Schütz, Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and, especially, Johann Sebastian Bach. His friends included leading musicologists, and, with Friedrich Chrysander, he edited an edition of the works of François Couperin. Brahms also edited works by C. P. E. Bach and W. F. Bach.
He looked to older music for inspiration in the art of counterpoint; the themes of some of his works are modelled on Baroque sources such as Bach’s The Art of Fugue in the fugal finale of Cello Sonata No. 1 or the same composer’s Cantata No. 150 in the passacaglia theme of the Fourth Symphony’s finale. Peter Phillips (2007) hears affinities between Brahms’s rhythmically charged contrapuntal textures and those of Renaissance masters such as Giovanni Gabrieli and William Byrd. Referring to Byrd’s Though Amaryllis dance, Philips remarks that “the cross-rhythms in this piece so excited E. H. Fellowes that he likened them to Brahms’s compositional style.”
The early Romantic composers had a major influence on Brahms, particularly Schumann, who encouraged Brahms as a young composer. During his stay in Vienna in 1862–63, Brahms became particularly interested in the music of Franz Schubert. The latter’s influence may be identified in works by Brahms dating from the period, such as the two piano quartets Op. 25 and Op. 26, and the Piano Quintet which alludes to Schubert’s String Quintet and Grand Duo for piano four hands.
The influence of Chopin and Mendelssohn on Brahms is less obvious, although occasionally one can find in his works what seems to be an allusion to one of theirs (for example, Brahms’s Scherzo, Op. 4, alludes to Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor; the scherzo movement in Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, alludes to the finale of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor).
Brahms considered giving up composition when it seemed that other composers’ innovations in extended tonality resulted in the rule of tonality being broken altogether. Although Wagner became fiercely critical of Brahms as the latter grew in stature and popularity, he was enthusiastically receptive of the early Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Brahms himself, according to many sources, deeply admired Wagner’s music, confining his ambivalence only to the dramaturgical precepts of Wagner’s theory.
Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life.
Brahms wrote a number of major works for orchestra, including four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B-flat major), a Violin Concerto, a Double Concerto for violin and cello, and the Tragic Overture, along with somewhat lesser orchestral pieces such as the two Serenades, and the Academic Festival Overture.
His large choral work A German Requiem is not a setting of the liturgical Missa pro defunctis but a setting of texts which Brahms selected from the Luther Bible. The work was composed in three major periods of his life. An early version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, and this was later used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother’s death in 1865. The fifth movement was added after the official premiere in 1868, and the work was published in 1869.
His works in variation form include, among others, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Paganini Variations, both for solo piano, and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn (now sometimes called the Saint Anthony Variations) in versions for two pianos and for orchestra. The final movement of the Fourth Symphony, Op. 98, is formally a passacaglia.
His chamber works include three string quartets, two string quintets, two string sextets, a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, a horn trio, a piano quintet, three piano quartets, and four piano trios (the fourth being published posthumously). He composed several instrumental sonatas with piano, including three for violin, two for cello, and two for clarinet (which were subsequently arranged for viola by the composer).
His solo piano works range from his early piano sonatas and ballades to his late sets of character pieces. Brahms was a significant Lieder composer, who wrote over 200 of them. His chorale preludes for organ, Op. 122, which he wrote shortly before his death, have become an important part of the organ repertoire. They were published posthumously in 1902. The last of this set is a setting of the chorale, “O Welt ich muss dich lassen”, “O world I now must leave thee” and were the last notes he wrote.
Brahms was an extreme perfectionist. He destroyed many early works – including a violin sonata he had performed with Reményi and violinist Ferdinand David – and once claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he issued his official First in 1873. Over the course of several years, he changed an original project for a symphony in D minor into his first piano concerto.
In another instance of devotion to detail, he laboured over the official First Symphony for almost fifteen years, from about 1861 to 1876. Even after its first few performances, Brahms destroyed the original slow movement and substituted another before the score was published.
Another factor that contributed to his perfectionism was Schumann’s early enthusiasm, which Brahms was determined to live up to.
Brahms strongly preferred writing absolute music that does not refer to an explicit scene or narrative, and he never wrote an opera or a symphonic poem.
Brahms looked both backward and forward; his output was often bold in its exploration of harmony and rhythm. As a result, he was an influence on composers of both conservative and modernist tendencies. Within his lifetime, his idiom left an imprint on several composers within his personal circle, who strongly admired his music, such as Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Robert Fuchs, and Julius Röntgen, as well as on Gustav Jenner, who was his only formal composition pupil.
Antonín Dvořák, who received substantial assistance from Brahms, deeply admired his music and was influenced by it in several works, such as the Symphony No. 7 in D minor and the F minor Piano Trio. Features of the “Brahms style” were absorbed in a more complex synthesis with other contemporary (chiefly Wagnerian) trends by Hans Rott, Wilhelm Berger, Max Reger and Franz Schmidt, whereas the British composers Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar and the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar all testified to learning much from Brahms. As Elgar said, “I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms, and I feel like a pygmy.”
Ferruccio Busoni‘s early music shows much Brahmsian influence, and Brahms took an interest in him, though Busoni later tended to disparage Brahms. Towards the end of his life, Brahms offered substantial encouragement to Ernst von Dohnányi and to Alexander von Zemlinsky. Their early chamber works (and those of Béla Bartók, who was friendly with Dohnányi) show a thoroughgoing absorption of the Brahmsian idiom. Zemlinsky, moreover, was in turn the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, and Brahms was apparently impressed by drafts of two movements of Schoenberg’s early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him in 1897.
In 1933, Schoenberg wrote an essay “Brahms the Progressive” (re-written 1947), which drew attention to his fondness for motivic saturation and irregularities of rhythm and phrase; in his last book (Structural Functions of Harmony, 1948), he analysed Brahms’s “enriched harmony” and exploration of remote tonal regions. These efforts paved the way for a re-evaluation of his reputation in the 20th century.
Schoenberg went so far as to orchestrate one of Brahms’s piano quartets. Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern, in his 1933 lectures, posthumously published under the title The Path to the New Music, claimed Brahms as one who had anticipated the developments of the Second Viennese School, and Webern’s own Op. 1, an orchestral passacaglia, is clearly in part a homage to, and development of, the variation techniques of the passacaglia-finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Ann Scott has shown how Brahms anticipated the procedures of the serialists by redistributing melodic fragments between instruments, as in the first movement of the Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2.
Brahms was honoured in the German hall of fame, the Walhalla memorial. On 14 September 2000, he was introduced there as the 126th “rühmlich ausgezeichneter Teutscher” and 13th composer among them, with a bust by sculptor Milan Knobloch.
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