Absolute Music and Johannes Brahms

A German composer of the mid-romantic period, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is known today for his humble, perfectionist personality and his straight-laced, crafted-yet-heartfelt music. He burned many of his works out of fear that anyone would discover what “awful” music he had composed, and there are stories of contemporaries and friends forcibly stopping him from destroying works that are now well-loved in the Romantic repertoire. Scholars estimate that only a minuscule number of Brahms’ works ever even made it to the publisher, and we are thankful for every single one that did.

Brahms studied Renaissance, Baroque and Classical counterpoint seriously, and his reverence of these traditions was one major factor in his perfectionism. Some of his contemporaries, such as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, considered Brahms’ music academic, boring and too much of the same old traditions that Beethoven had already exhausted a generation ago. While it’s undeniable that Brahms’ music sounds researched and crafted, and in the tradition of Beethoven’s, Brahms’ music manages to connect meticulous craftsmanship and refinement with humility, introversion and more romantic sentiment than Beethoven and his predecessors.

Brahms’ “romantic” sentiment is due not just to his time period but also his personal relationships, which inspired his compositions. He was close friends with the violinist Joseph Joachim, and wrote many works for him, which we will hear later in this entry. Brahms was also close with both Robert Schumann, who he considered a mentor, and Clara Schumann. When Robert was institutionalized, Brahms visited him when Clara was not allowed to. After Robert’s death, Brahms managed the Schumann family’s finances and logistics while Clara continued to perform and work for all of her surviving children.

The relationship between Johannes and Clara was deep, highly professional, and perhaps romantic, but nobody is sure. In their correspondence, Johannes revered Clara as an artist, colleague, and as an “ideal of womanhood.” Their relationship is often romanticized and is brooding question while listening to Johannes’s heartfelt compositions.

Brahms never married, but had a brief engagement in which his fiancee left abruptly and ended contact with him. He was deeply saddened, and confided in a friend that this fiancee was his last love.

Overall, Brahms had many personal relationships that had deep effects on him, positive and negative. These relationships added an extra element to his “academic” and meticulous writing, and the combination made for a truly exquisite style of composition.

Early Brahms: 4 Ballades, Op. 10

These four movements for solo piano are great examples of Brahms’ signature sound, already present despite this being early in his life and career. Like many of Brahms’ works, these pieces are dedicated to one of his close friends. These pieces were also written during Brahms’ early association with the Schumanns, and the beginning of Brahms’ lifelong bond with Clara.

Ironically, the first of these Ballades is a rare moment of programmatic inspiration for Brahms. It is based on a poem called “Edward.” Brahms would have known this poem, which has many variants, in German. However, it is said to be a Scottish legend, so Brahms added what he felt were elements of a gaelic, mythological past. These are open harmonies, meaning chords without middle pitches, and large gaps in range between the left and right hands.

The second ballade is lyrical and has a lullaby-like quality to it. It is very “Brahms” in its pleasant, calming relationship between melody and accompaniment. The contrasting section is boisterous, masculine and energetic.

The third ballade is a scherzo. Brahms played these pieces for Robert Schumann while in the asylum, and Schumann particularly loved this movement for its wild, exciting quality that perhaps he didn’t know Brahms had in him!

The final ballade has the most mystery to me, and it is nearly three times as long as the other three. It seems to be a wrestling with complicated, upsetting emotions. Its form is interesting because it does not end in B Major, as it begins, but in b minor. Brahms, already a strong proponent of counterpoint, form and all the rules, doesn’t even bother returning to the right key at the end of this ballade. Why? Perhaps it was too exhausting to do so; to me this inability to get back home to the happier key adds a strong element of emotional pain. Robert was dying and Johannes was (probably) in love with his wife. Not a happy state to be in.

Four great pianists interpret the ballades in one video!

Middle Brahms: Schicksalslied, op. 54

In addition to writing about old favorites, I have enjoyed discovering new pieces while writing this blog. I’m amazed that despite playing classical concerts professionally, there are still works by composers as well-programmed as Brahms that I’ve never heard. This single-movement choral work is one of them, and I’m very happy to have found it.

I wanted to include choral music in the Brahms post because he is well-remembered for choral works such as Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), in which he takes the then-traditional Requiem text and sets it in his native language instead of Latin. That is a great piece, too, and it deserves many listens, but why not have a new piece for both you and I?

This Schucksalslied (Song of Destiny) follows a poem of the same title by the author Friedrich Hölderlin. Here is the text:

Text (Friedrich Hölderlin)
Ihr wandelt droben im Licht
Auf weichem Boden selige Genien!
Glänzende Götterlüfte
Rühren Euch leicht,
Wie die Finger der Künstlerin
Heilige Saiten.
Schicksallos, wie der Schlafende
Säugling, atmen die Himmlischen;
Keusch bewahrt,
In bescheidener Knospe
Blühet ewig
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seligen Augen
Blicken in stiller
Ewiger Klarheit
Doch uns ist gegeben
Auf keiner Stätte zu ruh’n;
Es schwinden, es fallen
Die leidenden Menschen
Blindlings von einer
Stunde zur andern,
Wie Wasser von Klippe
Zu Klippe geworfen
Jahrlang in’s Ungewisse hinab.
Translation (Edwin Evans)
Ye wander gladly in light
Through goodly mansions, dwellers in Spiritland!
Luminous heaven-breezes
Touching you soft,
Like as fingers when skillfully
Wakening harp-strings.
Fearlessly, like the slumbering
Infant, abide the Beatified;
Pure retained,
Like unopened blossoms,
Flowering ever,
Joyful their soul
And their heavenly vision
Gifted with placid
Never-ceasing clearness.
To us is allotted
No restful haven to find;
They falter, they perish,
Poor suffering mortals
Blindly as moment
Follows to moment,
Like water from mountain
to mountain impelled,
Destined to disappearance below.

Take note that the first two-thirds of the poem are serene, optimistic and celestial. The last third is very grim. This gave Brahms issues while writing the piece; originally he considered having a full repeat of the beginning, an ABA form with the B portion being the grim reality, sandwiched between happier thoughts. He didn’t want to nullify the sentiment of the poem, which did end with the grimness, so in typical Brahms fashion he refused to publish the work and gave up on it for a few years.

He went back at the suggestion of conductor Hermann Levi, who would conduct the premiere of this piece once it was finished. The suggestion was a repeat not of the entire first section, but just the orchestral prelude. Brahms decided on this, and copied the gorgeous orchestral beginning again after the terrifying B section. He transferred the material into a new key, C major, and added even more richness to the harmonies.

It’s interesting that the last words the choir sing are, unsettlingly, the end of the poem, true to the text. The last sounds we hear are gorgeously calm, uplifting and peaceful. Brahms ended up with a thought-provoking and satisfyingly structured work indeed!

Late Brahms: Double Concerto, op. 102

Brahms became estranged from his lifelong friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, when Joachim went through a divorce with his wife and Brahms took her side in proceedings. Brahms wanted to repair their friendship, and he also had a commission for a new concerto. Having already written a stunning violin concerto and not wanting to be compared to himself with the same format, Brahms made use of his opportunity, writing this double concerto for violin and cello. It was dedicated to, and performed by, Joachim and Brahms’ other close colleague, cellist Robert Hausmann.

Brahms had written two sonatas each for violin and cello, and a concerto for violin, all of which are fabulously written and well-loved today. Still, he was worried about writing for instruments that weren’t his own (the piano), so this piece gave him a considerable amount of stress. Brahms had high ambitions for it, even making use of an inside jokes at a foundational level. Joachim had a motto, Frei aber einsam (free but lonely), and Brahms enjoyed using the pitches F-A-E as significant motives in works dedicated to Joachim. This double concerto uses these pitches immediately as the opening motive of the first movement, and the motive appears in more hidden places throughout the rest of the piece.

The movements alternate in a fast-slow-fast succession. The first movement is in classic sonata form (What’s that? Click here). The second movement is beautiful, lyrical and features the signature Brahms rhythmic figure: both 2 and 3 at the same time. Listen for a heartbeat-like figure, both douple and triple rhythms superimposed, usually in the accompaniment. (Need a refresher of douple and triple rhythm? Click here) This figure can be found in nearly all of Brahms’ slow movements; it was one of his favorite effects. The third movement is a lilting, folk dance-inspired theme and variations. Offbeat accompaniment gives an almost pedantic heaviness, and this seriousness is carried over through all of the variations. The piece ends with a massive-scale statement of one of the more positive variations.

I particularly love the harmonies in the second and third movements of this piece. It wasn’t well-received at its premiers, but respect for it has grown considerably and it’s now performed often. It evidently did its job of ensuring that all three parties became friends again; Brahms conducted several performances during this piece’s premiere year, all of which had Joachim and Hausmann as soloists.

More Brahms: Chamber Music Suggestions

Brahms has much, much more to offer any interested listeners. Here is an abridged list of smaller-scale works that deserve as much attention as Brahms’ Symphonies, concerti and choral works.

Piano Quartet no. 1 in g Minor, op. 25

String Quartet no. 3 in B Flat Major, op. 67

Clarinet (or viola!) Sonata no. 2 in E Fat, op 120

One of Brahms’ last works, also written for a friend. He did the viola transcription himself, which he thought “clumsy,” but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a staple in both clarinet and viola recital repertoire. Which do you prefer?

1 thought on “Absolute Music and Johannes Brahms

  1. […] we’ve discussed recently. For me, the harmonies are less dense than in music written by Brahms or the Schumanns, and the cadence of some of the phrases is, similar to with the Slavic composers […]


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