Friday, June 21, 2024

The Brilliance of Brahms

Johannes Brahms can be looked on as a “Classical Romantic” striving for a classical formality in Romantic idioms. A reserved scholarly man, a rather conservative and academic composer, and an outspoken critic of Liszt’s musical excesses, Brahms was something of an anachronism. Nevertheless, his music was of high quality and emotional depth, and he had quite a following; music lovers were classified at the time as followers of either Brahms, or Liszt and Wagner.

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on 7th May 1833 and died in Vienna on 3rd April 1897. He studied piano at the age of seven, theory and composition with Eduard Marxsen at 13 and gained experience as an arranger for his father’s light orchestra while absorbing the popular alla zingarese style associated with Hungarian folk music. In 1853, on a tour with the Hungarian violinist Remenyi he met Joseph Joachim and Liszt; Joachim, who became a lifelong friend, encouraged him to meet Robert Schumann. Brahms‘s artistic kinship with Robert Schumann and his profound romantic passion for Clara Schumann, 14 years his elder never left him. After a time in Dusseldorf, he worked in Detmold, settling in Hamburg in 1859 to direct a women’s chorus. Though well known as a pianist he had trouble finding recognition as a composer largely owing to his outspoken opposition-borne out in his D Minor Piano Concerto op. 15 – to the aesthetic principles of Liszt and the New German School. But his hopes for an official conducting post in Hamburg were strengthened by growing appreciation of his creative efforts, especially the two orchestral serenades, the Handel Variations for piano and the early piano quartets. He finally won a position of influence in 1863-4 as director of the Vienna Singakademie, concentrating on historical and modern acappella works. Besides giving concerts of his own, he made tours throughout Northern and Central Europe and began teaching the piano. He settled permanently in Vienna in 1868.

Brahms’s urge to hold an official position was again met by a brief conductorship – in 1872-3 of the Vienna Gesellschaftskonzerte but the practical demands of the job conflicted with his even more intense longing to compose. Both the German Requiem (first complete performance 1869) and the Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale (1873) were rapturously acclaimed, bringing international renown and financial security. Honours from home and abroad stimulated a spate of masterpieces, including the First (1876) and Second Symphonies (1877), the Violin Concerto (1878), the songs of opp.69-72 and the C major Trio. In 1881 Hans Von Bulow became a valued colleague and supporter, ‘lending’ Brahms the fine Meiningen court orchestra to rehearse his new works, notably the Fourth Symphony (1885). At Bad Ischl, his favourite summer resort, he composed a series of important chamber works. By 1890, he had resolved to stop composing but nevertheless produced in 1891-4 some of his best instrument pieces, inspired by the clarinetist Richard Muhfeld. Soon after Clara Schumann’s death in 1896 he died from cancer, aged 63 and was buried in Vienna.

Fundamentally reserved, logical and studious, Brahms was fond of taut forms in his music, though he used genre distinctions loosely. In the piano music, for example which chronologically encircled his vocal output, dividing lines between ballade and rhapsody, and capriccio and intermezzo, are vague such terms refer more to expressive character than musical form. As in other media, his most important development technique in the piano music variation, whether used independently (simple melodic alteration and thematic cross-reference) or to create a large integrated cycle in which successive variations contain their own transformation (as in the Handel Variations).

If producing chamber works without piano caused him difficulty, these pieces contained some of his most ingenious music, including the Clarinet Quintet and the three string quartets. Of the other chamber music, the eloquent pair of string sextets, the serious C Minor Piano Quartet op. 60 (known to be autobiographical), the richly imaginative Piano Quintet and the fluent Clarinet trio op. 114 are noteworthy. The confidence to finish and present his (first symphony) took Brahms 15 years, owing to worries not only over his orchestral technique but the work’s strongly classical lines at a time when programmatic symphonies were becoming fashionable. His closely worked score led him to be hailed as Beethoven’s true heir. In all four symphonies he was entirely personal in his choice of material, structural manipulation of themes and warm but lucid scoring. All four move from a weighty opening movement through loosely connected inner movements to a monumental finale. Here again his use of strict form , for example the ground bass scheme in the finale of the Fourth Symphony, is not only discreet but astonishingly effective. Among the concertos, the four movement Second Piano Concerto in B Flat– on a grandly symphonic scale demanding both physically and intellectually and the Violin Concerto are important, as too is the nobly rhetorical Double Concerto.

Brahms’s greatest vocal work, and a work central to his career, is the German Requiem (1868) combining mixed chorus, solo voices and full orchestra in deeply felt, non-denominational statement of faith. More romantic are the Schicksalslied and the Alto Rhapsody. Between these large choral works and the many acappella ones showing his informed appreciation of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony (he was a diligent collector, scholar and editor of old music) stand the justly popular Zigeunerlieder (in modified gypsy style) and the landler-like Liebeslieder waltzes with piano accompaniment. His best loved songs include besides the narrative Magelone cycle and the sublime Vierernste Gesange, Mainacht, Feldeinsamkeit and Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.

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