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Johannes Brahms

At a time when it was fashionable to write programmatic music that illustrated specific scenes, poems, or stories, the great German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was recognized by his admirers as “Beethoven’s true heir” (Grove Concise Dictionary of Music) by demonstrating that established abstract formal procedures could be used to organize musical discourse without sacrificing the passion and deeply individualistic expression that defines 19th-Century Romantic music. Thus, Brahms joined Bach and Beethoven as one of the great “Three B’s” of classical music.

The opening measures of Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1 (1853), pay obvious homage to Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, and upon hearing Brahms the famous composer and influential music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) became the first to publicly hail the young and unknown composer as Beethoven’s heir apparent. Brahms was himself a virtuoso pianist, so it is not surprising that his earliest works are for his own instrument. But despite its being published as the composer’s “Opus 1,” the C-major Sonata was not Brahms’ actual “first work”—it was written after both the Scherzo, Op. 4 (1851), and the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 2 (1853). Since it was Schumann who recommended Brahms to the music publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, it was perhaps also Schumann who first suggested that the “stronger” C-major Sonata be published first, to better introduce Brahms to the public with a work that would readily bring Beethoven to mind. Like Beethoven, Brahms was a master of the variation form which he demonstrates in his 2nd movement Andante, using as the theme the old German song, Verstohlen geht der Mond auf (The Moon Steals Out). And, also like Beethoven, Brahms inserts a Scherzo movement before the rondo Finale, which in turn uses a principal theme derived from the Sonata’s first movement.

For the most part, Brahms arranged his 21 Hungarian Dances from existing tunes (only nos. 11, 14 and 16 are not adaptations), so he didn’t assign an opus number to them—but they still out-sold any of his other works! 

Brahms originally wrote his 16 short Waltzes, Op. 39, in 1865 for piano 4-hands, and by the time they were published in 1867, he also had prepared two different solo piano versions (one easy, the other harder). Brahms wasn’t expecting much of a reaction from the public—after all, he was competing with the “Waltz King” Strausses—so he was pleasantly surprised by the successes he had with all three versions.

BRAHMS: Intermezzi & Capriccios 
      (from Klavierstücke, Opp. 76 & 118, and 7 Fantasien, Op. 116)
PDF Scores: Opus 118, no. 1 / Opus 76 / Opus 116, no. 4 
  • Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 118, no. 1 [On YouTube]
  • Capriccio in F# minor, Op. 76, no. 1 [On YouTube]
  • Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116, no. 4 [On YouTube]
  • Capriccio in C# minor, Op. 76, no. 5 [On YouTube]
  • Intermezzo in B-flat Major, Op. 76, no. 4 [On YouTube]
As a youth, Brahms earned a living as a pianist, but after he became established as a composer he limited his public performances to playing only his own works. His last large-scale composition for solo piano was Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, composed in 1863. Following his 1865 arrangements for solo piano of his 16 Waltzes, Op. 36 (originally for Piano, 4-hands), there was a gap of thirteen years before Brahms resumed writing solo music for his own instrument. 

In 1878, his 8 Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), Op. 76, appeared, followed by 2 Rhapsodien, Op. 79, the following year. Then there was another 13-year gap before he produced his 7 Fantasien, Op. 116, and 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117, in 1892; followed by 6 Klavierstücke, Op. 118, and 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119, in 1893. Among the thirty individual piano pieces from his Op. 76 forward, Brahms named eighteen of them “Intermezzo,” and seven “Capriccio.” Neither term has a precise, predictable meaning, but in comparing Brahms’s use of the titles various commentators have observed that his Intermezzi tend to be more “introspective,” while still running the emotional gamut from light-hearted to darkly impassioned; and theCapriccios tend to be “stormy” and more improvisatory in their formal structure. Although all of Brahms's later piano pieces are on a relatively intimate scale, in both his chamber music and solo works his piano writing is usually quite challenging, to say the least--so it is evident that in addition to being one of our most enduring composers, Brahms never lost his touch as a virtuoso performer.

Brahms wrote his first Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 78,  during the summers of 1878 and 1879 while vacationing in Italy. Among his most ingratiating works, it has been nicknamed the "Rain" Sonata because Brahms used thematic material drawn from his song, Regenlied ("Rain Song"). 

Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100 (1886)

For many of us, summer vacations might provide a good time to "vegetate," in the sense of "idly lulling about." But for Brahms sunny rural retreats instead sparked his musical inspiration to "bloom and grow" into some of his most ingratiating works, including his three violin sonatas. The first (Op. 78, 1878) was written in response to an Italian sojourn, and both the second (Op. 100, 1886) and third (Op. 108, 1886-88) to stays on Lake Thun in Switzerland, a locality which Brahms reported was "so full of melodies that one has to be careful not to step on any." In August 1886, in addition to the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100, Brahms (mostly) completed his Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 99, and the Piano Trio No. 3, Op. 101. He also wrote several songs, including Komm bald ("Come soon"), Op. 97/5, and Wie Melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn ("It passes through my mind like melodies"), Op. 107/1, both of which provided thematic inspiration for the opus 100 violin sonata.  Considering its birthplace and sunny disposition, it is not surprising that Brahms’ second sonata is sometimes known as the "Thun" Sonata. But surprisingly, it also has appeared with the nickname "Meistersinger," owing to the intervallic similarity between the piano's first three notes with the first sung notes of "Walter's Prize Song" from the last scene in Wagner's 1868 opera, Die Meistersinger—only it is hard to imagine that Brahms would have intentionally paid tribute to his noted rival! 

Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 3 in D minor, op. 108 (1888)
  (Allegro -- Adagio -- Un poco presto e con sentimento -- Presto agitato)
Contrasting with his lyrical first two violin sonatas, Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 (1886-88) has four movements rather than three and assumes an almost symphonic scale. The choice of D minor as the central key harkens back to the stormy world of Brahms’s youthful Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 15 (1859), especially in the tarantella-like final movement, and the demanding piano part often resembles a concerto—there is no question that both instruments are meant to share the spotlight. As was very often the case with his works including the piano, Brahms played the piano part himself for the premiere, so it is evident that in addition to being one of our most enduring composers he was also a virtuoso performer.

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, June 1, 2008 (Huls Clark Duo: The Intermezzo Series Finale)