Monday, 27 August 2012

On Brahms (1)

Brahms, long before the beard

Schumann announced Johannes Brahms to the world, saying he "sprang, like Minerva, fully-armed from the head of the son of Cronus." The composers who formed his youthful armour were primarily Beethoven and Bach (with Haydn and Mozart lurking in the background.) It was on Beethoven's example and forms - sonata, symphony and chamber music - that he built much of his early output.

His Op.1, the Sonata in C major, begins with a figure

that deliberately echoes the opening of Beethoven's most ambitious sonata, the Hammerklavier:

It was a declaration of intent, it seems: I will build my music on Beethoven.

Brahms was a very different composer to Beethoven. The latter was a maker of big, optimistic statements, a dramatic writer, a heroic figure, an experimenter, a radical re-thinker, a dare-devil composer. Brahms, on the other hand, was essentially a lyrical composer, much more pessimistic in nature, a musical conservative, far more cautious in temperament. Beethoven got wilder and more exuberant as he aged while Brahms mellowed from the passionate lion of his youth into a composer of works often characterised as 'autumnal'. When it came to counterpoint Beethoven struggled like Michelangelo chiselling fugues out of granite, while Brahms wrote contrapuntally with a masterly Raphael-like ease. 

This is not to say that Brahms didn't bring something new to the Classical forms he adopted in such a thoroughgoing fashion. He often transformed the work's scherzo into an intermezzo, even when that movement (as it frequently did) still retained the old scherzo label. His first intermezzo in a large-scale work came in the Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25That movement is slower than any traditional scherzo would be and has a different character to the traditional scherzo whilst still retaining its ternary (ABA) structure complete with trio section. These less-driven scherzi recur again and again in his output, as (to pick at random) in the second movement of his Horn Trio, Op.40 or that of his Piano Quartet No.3, Op.60. Sometimes their trio sections are faster-moving than their main sections - another innovation! - as in the third movement of the Second Symphony or the third movement of the Clarinet Quinet, Op.115. Even when the scherzo does move quickly, its character can be far removed from that usually associated with such a movement - as in the quiet, edgy-sounding second movement of the Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, Op.101 Not that Brahms wouldn't write a more traditional, robust and dynamic scherzo if he felt like it - as with the third movement of the Fourth Symphony. To further enrich the form, in some works he would fuse the scherzo with the slow movement as in the central movement of the String Quintet No.1 in F major, Op.88 or the equivalent movement in the Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.100.

Brahms's adored Clara Schumann

Brahms was the supreme contrapuntalist of his age and many of his works are strengthened through counterpoint. If you want to hear a pristine (and hardly ever heard) Brahms fugue, complete with inversion, augmentation and diminution, please try the excellent Fugue in A flat minor for organ - Brahms as the heir of Bach! Even if you know that piece, I suspect you may never had heard the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, or the Chorale Prelude & Fugue on 'O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid' - pieces that again point back to Bach   and his immediate predecessors such as Bruhns and Buxtehude but also forward to Max Reger. These are all early works, but Brahms was to return to organ music at the very end of his life with the magnificent Chorale Preludes, Op.122. No other great Romantic composer wrote such pieces. 

The opening prelude, Mein Jesu, der du mich, displays the Baroque art of treating each line of the chorale melody fugally but, as with all of the set (and unlike the earlier works), Brahms's highly subtle and personal harmonic language sets the piece firmly in Brahms's world rather than Bach's - even when setting 'the Passion chorale' so closely associated with the St. Matthew Passion ('O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden'), as in the strongly chromatic four-part first setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen - a remarkable act of re-imagining. The second take on Herzlich tut mich verlangen presents the chorale melody on the pedals and surrounds it with lovely figuration. I suspect you will also like Brahms's beautiful take on the Christmas chorale Est Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen (the tune in its most familiar form can be heard here and helps show how ingeniously the composer has transformed it). As so often Brahms was at his most touching when thinking about death, and his first setting of Heinrich Isaac's early-Renaissance Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen (the switch from 'Innsbruck' to 'O Welt' ('O World') had been made centuries before Brahms) sounds particularly personal, and so does the later five-part O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen with which the composer ends his collection, especially with its many lingering wistful echoes. I imagine that Bach would have been impressed with these rich tributes to his great spirit.

Brahms, as a young man

Counterpoint also runs through Brahms's choral output. Here the other main influence, Bach, makes its presence felt. The lovely Geistliches Lied, Op.30 is a double canon at the ninth. Listen to the tenors as they follow the sopranos at the distance of a bar and a ninth lower than the ladies. The basses follow the altos in the same fashion. The personal harmonies and the warmness of the accompanying figuration make this anything but an academic exercise. Another lovely and highly original use of canon can be heard in Einförmig is der Liebe Gram, the closing number from the composer's Op.113 - a six-part piece for female voices based on the lump-in-the-throat closing song from Schubert's Winterreise, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man. Brahms has the two altos provide the song's drone - in canon. From the opening of the motet Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, Op.29/2 you will hear (or more likely see in the score) that the second basses sing an augmented canon with the sopranos (singing twice as slowly), and O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf, Op.74/2 ends with a short 'Amen' section that packs in two consecutive canons, both using inversion. Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Op.29/1 opens with a chorale harmonisation, the tune of which is then set against a fugue based on the melody. 

Clara, as Brahms first knew her

Counterpoint can crop up anywhere in Brahms's music. The Schumann Variations, Op.9 are based on a theme from Robert Schumann's Bunte Blätter, but also incorporate a theme by Clara in Variation 10 - the melody of which is tenderly shadowed by the bass line in inversion. The fourteenth variation (another lovely one) sets the melody as a canon at the second two bars behind. 

Another set of piano variations, the towering Handel Variations, Op.24, ends with an exhilarating fugue - a fugue that sounds more like Bach than Handel. There's more inversion, plus augmentation and some double counterpoint too. 

My favourite piece of Brahms, the magical Haydn Variations, Op.56 (based on the St. Antoni Chorale, almost certainly not composed by Haydn), contains passage after passage where counterpoint plays a part, yet the piece is so cunningly crafted that you hardly notice - a classic case of art concealing art. There's double counterpoint in Variation 1 and double counterpoint and inversion in Variation 4. The contrapuntal prowess shown in Variation 8, however, is not concealed but instead put in the composer's shop window for all to see, admire and enjoy.  

Before leaving the influence of Bach on Brahms, the ground (with a slight tweak) of the closing passacaglia from the Fourth Symphony was drawn from a work by Bach - the cantata Nach dir Herr verlanget mich, BWV150, which is a strong candidate for being the composer's earliest cantata. So the opening movement of Bach's first cantata (possibly) provided the inspiration for the finale of Brahms's final symphony. 

For all Brahms's Classical and Baroque inspirations, he was still a Romantic composer. Who can have heard the magical introduction to the finale of the First Symphony without being delighted by the horn call over a shimmering tremolo, the woodbird-like flute response and the near-Brucknerian chorale which answers them both? The pacing and the key-changes of that section point to the influence of Schubert, whose music Brahms did so much to promote, but the ambiance has more of, say, the introduction of the Introduction and Allegro, Op.92, the Konzertstück, Op.86 or Beim Abschied zu singen by Robert Schumann. Brahms writes in this vein more often than you might think. The irresistible and masterly Fünf Gesänge, Op.104 contains a number called Nachtwache II which uses echoing calls across all six parts to evoke the horns of night watchmen and, in a simpler vein, the adorable Der Jäger from the Marienlieder, Op.22 also evokes horn calls (this time hunting horns.) The lovely Four Songs for Women's Choir, two Horns and Harp, Op.17 (Pt.2 here) are even closer to the spirit of that passage.

Schumann was certainly a key influence, leaving young Johannes much more than a friendly young widow. As a passionate devotee of Robert's music and an advocate of his late works, what surprised me most on getting to know them is just how much they seem to anticipate late Brahms. There is a more Classical, mellow quality to much of late Schumann that must have spoken straight to his friend's heart. If you are familiar with late Brahms already but unfamiliar with late Schumann, then please take a listen to the Fantasy Pieces, Op.73, the Three Romances, Op.94 and the Fantasiestücke, Op.111.

Still beardless
Harmony and counterpoint were certainly something Robert was fascinated by, counterpoint becoming of prime importance as he got older. Something of his way with harmony certainly rubbed off on Brahms, though his radically innovative forms and inspired flights of fancy were something Brahms chose not to try to emulate. The main exception came with the Four Ballades, Op.10, superb pieces full of early Schumannesque spirit. The first piece of the set is a very rare piece of Brahms that isn't abstract but instead inspired by a literary tale, namely a Scottish ballad about Edward (a tale of murder and curses). It has a central crescendo that truly merits the term 'exciting'. (Liszt, eat your heart out!) 

That supremely German Romantic interlude in the finale of the First Symphony and memories of the Marienlieder point up another aspect of Brahms's music and another influence - his love for his country's folk music. I don't think many people know about this aspect of his art, or that he arranged and published folk songs himself - the Vierzehn Volkslieder, WoO.34 and Zwölf deutsche Volkslieder, WoO.35 are excellent places to start exploring this very attractive  part of his output. 

Folk-like simplicity is not the first quality that springs to mind when thinking about the music of Brahms. It can, however - as the Marienlieder and Op.17 Songs demonstrate - be both artfully crafted yet direct and simple-sounding - especially when Brahms is wanting a piece to sound as fresh as folk song. The delicious carol-like Ave Maria, Op.12 is a case in point. He can also, however, write in an even more popular vein, pieces that sound as if they could be written for friends to sing at parties - pieces like the six-part-yet-remarkably-uncomplicated Tafellied, Op.93b and those loveable collections of part-songs with piano, the masterly and supremely tasty Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 and their sequel, the Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.65. Yes, Brahms can let his hair (including his beard) down, but without ever letting his standards down. Anyone who knows the Academic Festival Overture will already know that. 

Clara, in middle age

This romantic, lyrical, warm-hearted side of Brahms (which many feel to be his best side) is expressed most openly in the songs - strangely the least well-known area of his music despite including many absolute gems. Some, like Ständchen (from Op.106), Vor dem Fenster (from Op.14), Der Schmied (from Op.19) and Dort in den Weiden (from Op.96), seem to spring melodically from folk song. Others have a Schubert-like sense of drama (and genius for key shifts), such as the splendid Wehe, so willst du mich wieder (from Op.32), or a Schumann-like feel for setting dialogue, such as the no-less-splendid Liebestreu (from Op.3). Great depths of beauty and feeling are reached with songs like Feldeinsamkeit (from Op.86), Waldeseinsamkeit (from Op.85), Sapphische Ode (from Op.84) , the sorrow-filled O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück (from Op.63) and, best of all, the towering Von ewiger Liebe (from Op.43). If you want a warm glow in your stomach then look no further than the 2 Gesänge, Op.91 (featuring viola), so tender, so lovely. The second of these songs is the much-loved Geistliches Wiegenlied - a lullaby with the warmth of a Christmas carol (indeed, does it not remind you of one in particular?) 

Here's the beard!

His greatest songs are his final ones - the Four Serious Songs, Op.121, songs written after the "greatest wealth" of his life, Clara, suffered a stroke and he became haunted at the prospect of her death. (She was to die in the year of their composition, 1896, one year before Johannes himself). Settings of Luther's Bible translations, mostly from Ecclesiastes - a book of the Bible that, like myself, Brahms felt spoke to him most - these songs stand apart from his other songs. Nothing in his previous song output anticipates them. 

Talking of Luther, from the other end of his life comes a setting of a Luther-inspired hymn text, Begräbnisgesang, Op.13 - a gripping piece for mixed choir, brass, woodwinds and timpani that harks back to Germany's Baroque greats, Schütz and Bach, but also looks forward to the German Requiem. The piece is a funeral march whose sombre character is enhanced by the scoring, keeping the brass to just tubas and trombones. Brahms balances this by providing moments of light where the higher voices are foregrounded and where woodwind provide arpeggiated accompaniments. There's a crescendo and a climax at the work's heart of the thrilling kind later found in the German Requiem's second movement where, again, the timpani pound like a giant's heart. Though rarely heard and early, this is one of the composer's most moving works. 

His greatest choral work (and one of his greatest works in toto) is the German Requiem itself. The outlook expressed in the Serious Songs is also found within the Requiem and the words are also Luther's. This was a requiem written to console the living. 'Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted' is the title of the first movement and the purpose of the whole piece.  With calm solemnity this opening section rises from the lowest depths of the strings towards the gentle elation of high woodwinds and harp in a mood that combines Beethoven-like grandeur, Brahmsian Romantisim and Lutheran chorale-like phrases. 

The second movement, 'For all flesh, it is as grass', is part-sarabande, part-funeral march and is both beautiful and thrilling. Its theme is a chorale and its initial entry on strings over muffled drum rhythms is haunting. The men's chorus get to sing its first bars before, magically, women's voices enter join in for the lovely second phrase. The main theme modulates thrillingly, the drums pound and there is a spine-tingling/spine-chilling full choral and orchestral reprise of the chorale theme. The central section is much sweeter, with major-key harmonies, happy woodwind counterpoint and a swaying triple-time rhythm. The dark-sounding funeral march then returns to send more thrills/shivers down the spine before a great flame of choral light brings a confident fugue that eases into chorale-like writing before a dramatic section (with last trumps and all) leads to a sustained climax and, in time, a consolatory close. I prefer all that precedes the fugue.

Clara, again

The third movement, 'Lord, teach me', again moves towards the light, culminating in a vigorous and optimistic fugue. My favourite part of the movement, however, again comes before that fugue. Here a baritone soloist leads off with what sounds like an aria with chorus; indeed, it would make for a great operatic scene where the doubts and fears of the protagonist spread into the attentive crowd. A melody, introduced immediately by the baritone, is thematically worked with much majesty and a second theme is derived from this same melody by inverting a motif from it. The music moves towards that resolutely major-key fugue by masterly means - a horn call, women's voices and a Romantic surge.                        

The fourth movement, 'How lovely are thy dwellings', is a short section of repose. Listen to the inviting woodwind phrase in the opening bars and the way the chorus comes in (high voices foregrounded) over a soft horn call. Then when the strings emerge into prominence (less than a minute in), the lilt and grace of the music instantly captivates. Brief passages of contrapuntal writing aside, all is lightness and loveliness.   

The fifth movement, 'You now have sadness', is a soprano-aria-with chorus and a gorgeous piece of music, more serious in tone than its predecessor. The vocal writing is sublime and the orchestral accompaniment is delicate - no 'mahogany' here. 

The sixth movement, 'For here we have no lasting place', is the dramatic climax of the Requiem, its Dies Irae. It is gripping, beginning quietly (the calm before the storm!) with more delicately-scored writing, before the baritone introduces the dramatic action (with moments of Brucknerian sonorities!) to fascinating scoring and wonderful modulations. The chorus erupts into full Dies Irae- style storminess, their fervour alternating with the baritone's gravely beautiful music. A grand (somewhat disappointing) fugue then begins.

The final movement, 'Blessed are the dead', has always been my least favourite movement. I feel that the first few minutes are are bit too staid and conventional. The chorale-like phrases introduced by the winds (some three minutes in) are a blessing and their reappearance always brings satisfaction (to me). 

No, it's not Karl Marx

It's worth remembering that A German Requiem came at the end of the composer's early maturity . It is a remarkable achievement.

Before moving onto those late works in the next post, I want to end this one by mentioning in passing an aspect of Brahms's music than Charles Rosen has also dwelt on - the composer's extraordinary way with rhythm. Brahms is no knee-jerk four-bar-phrase man. No, he uses all manner of phrase lengths, overlaps his phrases, combines phrases moving at contrasting speeds, employs unusual rhythms (etc). Brahms is the master of cross-rhythms. There are so many examples of this that it's pointless to single many out. The opening of the Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38, setting a beautiful cello melody against a syncopated piano accompaniment provides a simple example. A classic instance of unusual rhythms is the slow movement of the Piano Trio in C minor, Op.101 - a movement with the very unusual feature of a double time signature - 3/4, 2/4. The way it works out it would now be called 7/4 time. This flexibility helps keep Brahms's music interesting. 

The late pieces are full of interest...

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