by Johannes Brahms
Recommended Ages: 14+
Johannes Brahms lived from 1833 to 1897. He was brought up in Hamburg (Germany), made his career in Vienna (Austria), and specialized in music that blended the richest harmonic and rhythmic innovations of forward-looking, late-Romantic music with forms and structures looking back on the Baroque and Classical periods. His four symphonies are tremendous achievements in the art; the first has been jokingly nicknamed "Beethoven's Tenth," and in my opinion, they just get better and better. His orchestra-choral works, including several pieces I have had the honor and pleasure of singing, are jaw-droppingly excellent. He also left behind a good deal of important chamber music, and a HUGE catalog of songs for soloists and for choir.
Brahms was a rough contemporary of Tchaikovsky (d. 1893), Wagner (d. 1883), Bruckner (d. 1896), neither of whom had much of an opinion of Brahms. Tchaikovsky, for example, called Brahms "that giftless bastard"—an insult that perplexes me, considering that I have never found Brahms' music lacking in inspiration, but I cannot say the same about Tchaikovsky. On a more positive note, he was closely associated with Schumann (d. 1856) and Dvořák (d. 1904), among other notable composers. I won't say that Brahms was the center of the musical universe in his time; but when the popular phrase "the three B's" classes him with Bach and Beethoven, it does not exaggerate much. And though the bulk of his solo piano works, apart from sonatas and variations, can fit in a single album (and not a very thick one), it is clear that Brahms, a pianist himself, saved the strongest feelings and the richest ideas for that instrument.
Besides Waltzes, with which we are already acquainted, the titles of Brahms pieces range from Scherzo to Ballade, from Rhapsody to Romance; but his favorite titles were Capriccio and Intermezzo. It is hard to express exactly what the difference is between these pieces. In form they are mostly ABA', with some customized fixtures added now and then. In rhythm they are not usually very danceable, even in an abstract concept of dance. A Scherzo was a type of movement frequently used in Romantic symphonies, chamber works, sonatas, etc., in place of the classical Minuet; it tended to be a brisk, energetic, dramatic piece, often in a duple (2/4) meter, though Brahms's is in a triple (3/4). A Ballade is basically a lyric piece inspired by, if not actually setting to music, a piece of narrative poetry (what we would call a "ballad"). A Rhapsody, generally a succession of dramatic musical episodes, takes its name from a Greek form of epic poetry. A Romance, when it isn't actually a type of song similar to a ballad, is an instrumental imitation of one. A Capriccio, or Caprice, is a quick, free-ranging piece, often either full of passion or technically demanding, if not both. Strangest of all Brahms' titles, but perhaps his favorite of all, is Intermezzo: literally designating a musical interlude between scenes of an opera or (in Brahms's symphonies, etc.) movements of a larger work, by the end of Brahms's career this title applied to masterpieces that could and did stand on their own—rich in expression, wide in dramatic scope, complete in form, and deep in meaning.
And now, to go through the Brahms album one piece at a time. We start with...
Op. 4—Scherzo in E-flat Minor(six flats)
Here's a video to make up for the fact that I can't share a personal testimonial about the joy of playing this particular piece.
I don't often attempt to play this huge, virtuosic, early work by Brahms. It's very fast, very loud and strenuous, very rasch und feurig (that's the tempo marking, in fact), and difficult enough to require more work than I care to devote to it. While it instantly puts to rest the misconception of Brahms as a composer chiefly of peaceful lullabies1, that's about the only thing restful about it. Between you, me, and the wall, I don't really like it. I think it sounds shrill and, except for a peaceful second theme and some gentler passages in the two Trios, it treats the instrument very harshly. In this album, Brahms will have plenty of opportunity to put the lie to the misconception that he was chiefly a composer of lullabies; but I don't think we will ever again hear him do so with as little subtlety or variety as in this piece.
Op. 10—Four Ballades
No. 1 in D Minor ("Edward")
Here we find Brahms in his "legends of the past" register, one to which he often returned. Inspired by a traditional Scottish ballad he found in a German translation, it sings (without words) a tale well known on the folk-singing circuit: a youth comes home with blood on his sword; his mother asks him where the blood came from; and after at first telling a lie, he gradually reveals that he has killed his brother and must now go away forever. It's a good piece for learning to deal with rhythmic niceties such as 2:3 cross-rhythms, and developing your pedal technique to cover for the fact that two hands are really doing the work of three.No. 2 in D Major
This piece opens with two themes in a gentle and peaceful mood—one syncopated, the other featuring widely-spaced, rolled chords. The mood grows stormy in a second section. A third segment is more playful, but takes on a more serious note as it transitions back to the second section. In the end, the peaceful opening returns.No. 3 in B Minor (Intermezzo)
This number has some of the energy of the Scherzo op. 4, but only a fraction of its violence. The middle section has an innocent, childlike quality.No. 4 in B major
The initial material of this piece is a slow-paced melody accompanied by downward arpeggios. In the second section, the melody moves into a middle voice, between a rocking accompaniment of steady eighths in the left hand and simultaneous eighth-note triplets in the right hand.2 Particularly challenging are a couple of spots where a second middle voice borrows notes from both hands' accompaniment patterns. When the first part returns, the accompaniment has grown more jaunty. The texture settles down to quarter-note chords for a while (though with unusual phrase lengths), then returns to the "melody in the middle" style of the second section. The contrast between these two main textures is like a dialogue between two characters (a woman answered by a man), though we don't know precisely which characters they are or what ballad's words they are saying to each other, there is a certain tenderness and sadness and sense that the girl doesn't know what the boy feels, suggesting that Brahms may have been thinking of the crush of his life: Robert Schumann's widow Clara.
Brahms published several versions of Op. 39. The original version, I think, was for one piano, four hands. This he reduced to a two-hand version, and then an even more "Simplified Edition," for less skilled pianists. Some of the waltzes also exist in a "two pianos, four hands" version, for what it's worth. Both two-handed versions are in the Dover Edition I keep close to my piano. For the most part, either one is within the reach of an amateur of middling ability (e.g. yours truly); though the unsimplified version will require a bit more work. There are sixteen waltzes (Walzer) in the set. Unlike Chopin's pieces, they are not individually significant, equipped with multiple themes, a fully developed form, and a sense of being complete masterpieces in themselves. Rather, they are an interconnected series of musical miniatures in a simple, rounded-binary form. The longest of them is only a page and a half long; several of them are less than a page. And while some of them are independently more famous than others, they really form a single whole, played one after another. They make no pretensions to great art, but are simply attractive pieces in the popular dance form; nevertheless, they express a variety of moods and are sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. In my opinion, the tonal scheme that results from playing them as a set works better in the "original" two-hand version than in the Simplified Edition, which besides reducing the number of notes you have to play, also moves some of the pieces into an easier key. Here's a list of the numbers in this set with the keys they represent, to give you some idea of what you may be facing as you explore this set:
- B major (5 sharps)
- E major (4 sharps)
- G-sharp minor (5 sharps)
- E minor (1 sharp)
- E major
- C-sharp major (7 sharps; transposed to the white-note key of C in the Simplified Edition)
- C-sharp minor (4 sharps)
- B-flat major (2 flats)
- D minor (1 flat)
- G major (1 sharp)
- B minor (2 sharps)
- E major
- B major (C in the S.E.)
- G-sharp minor (transposed to A minor, with all white notes, in the S.E.)
- A-flat major (4 flats; transposed to A, with 3 sharps, in the S.E.)
- C-sharp minor (transposed to D minor in the S.E.)
Op. 76—Eight Pieces
No. 1 Capriccio in F-sharp Minor
Again, this is a piece I do not play much. Its rapid flow sixteenth-notes taxes my sight-reading abilities to the limit, and I tend not to invest much work in a piece that does not provide at least a little gratification on a cold read-through. But I have listened to recordings of it while following the score, and I appreciate its scintillating virtuosity, its dramatic sweep, the brilliant colors and textures of sound it draws from the piano.No. 2 Capriccio in B minor
This is a fun, even humorous piece, definitely worth spending time practicing and stretching one's technique for. It opens with a staccato melody over an "oom-pah, oom-pah" left-hand pattern. It then plays around with chromatic sequences, flouncy grace notes, major/minor juxtapositions, and ostinato patterns in a middle voice while the outside voices in both hands dialogue back and forth. Brahms doesn't let up on the harmonic surprises, even as the piece finally dies away.No. 3 Intermezzo in A-flat Major
This piece features a delicate main melody in off-the-beat quarter notes over a wide-spaced, strumming accompaniment. A brief, free second idea adds a touch more expressiveness before both parts are repeated.No. 4 Intermezzo in B-flat major
This very chromatic, tonally unsettled but texturally relaxed piece majors in the effect of rolled chords that results from each voice moving on a different part of the beat. This alternates with a more agitated idea. At the climax of the piece, both ideas merge into one for just a moment.No. 5 Capriccio in C-sharp Minor
Here a dark, chromatic melody in a 3/4 rhythm (3 beats to the bar) is accompanied by an even more chromatic run of eighth notes in the middle voice and a bass-line that moves in 6/8 (two beats to the bar). Again the subordinate idea is more agitated sounding, like a wild dance. Both ideas are repeated with variation, tending toward more rhythmic complexity and higher drama, until the thrilling (and highly virtuosic) upward rush of the final bars.No. 6 Intermezzo in A Major
One of the most accessible pieces in this set, this piece only requires a wide-awake amateur to subdivide 2:3 cross-rhythms (almost unceasingly) and to negotiate richly chromatic melodies and harmonies. Beyond that, it isn't technically difficult. But to make it sound really good, you need to be confident of the notes and to play with sensitivity. It is on the mellower side, but its relative calm conceals an uneasy mind and deep, complex emotions. Not a lullaby!No. 7 Intermezzo in A Minor
Framed by a simple, noble, poignant phrase, the main body of this piece is a harmonically rich melody over a left-hand pattern of rolling eighths. The tune is marked by rhythmic accents, hesitations, and phrasings in which the resolution of a dissonance in one voice dovetails with the beginning of a new phrase in another voice. Again, it's very accessible to the amateur, and rewards as much work as you can put into it.No. 8 Capriccio in C Major
Here is a graceful, flowing piece which Kevin the amateur may find surprisingly approachable, in spite of the wide range of its left-hand arpeggios and the variety of rhythmic and harmonic highlights hidden within the right-hand part. It has a melody that emerges as if by magic out of a stream of eighth-notes, a mood ranging from sun-dappled sweetness to earnest dramatics, and harmonies that stretch the musician's appreciation of expressive beauty in unexpected directions. As a finale to this set, it is very effective!
No. 1 in B Minor
This is one of Brahms's big, dramatic showpieces. It begins with an instantly recognizable feature: the rhythm of a dotted quarter and three triplet sixteenths, followed by a strident phrase in dotted-quarter figures. This passage quickly subsides to a tense transitional theme in which the hands cross each other. After a repeat of the material so far, we discover a tender theme in D minor, accompanied by searching harmonies. The first theme comes back in a heated B-flat major passage, culminating in upward rushes of thirty-second notes that I tend to skip when I play this piece, because I'm a chicken. These flourishes effect the transition back to B minor, where a reprise of the opening theme finally loses steam in a long, written-out ritard. This concludes the A section, making way for the B section's "very sweet, expressive" theme in B major, with the melody in a middle voice while the uppermost voice plays a sort of pedal point. After spending a good deal of time on this material (including repeats), we go back through the considerable length of Part A and conclude with a light, mysterious coda.No. 2 in G Minor
This sonata-form piece again shows Brahms in his high-powered, passionate mode. The opening melody requires hand crossings while the right hand holds down a rocking middle-voice accompaniment. After a transitional theme that runs plumb wild, we catch a brief glimpse of a haunting second theme. Almost half of the exposition is devoted to a striking codetta theme in D minor. The development focuses wholly on the first theme, going through three long pages and a variety of keys. This section peters out dreamily before the recap begins with a loud D major chord. And from there on everything else is the same as at first, except (with orthodox adherence to sonata-form procedures) that everything from the second theme onward is transposed so that the piece will end in G minor. That's what's going on under the hood; what you hear, however, is music of awesome seriousness and expressive power, building to a tremendous climax and dying away again, before two loud final chords.
No. 1 Capriccio in D Minor
I love trying to play this piece, but I never do it anything like justice. I really need to work on it! It's a very vast, furiously energetic piece full of big two-fisted chords, rhythmic displacements, thrilling crescendoes, cascading arpeggios in octaves, and a central passage in which eighth-note chords alternating between the two hands require a different kind of beaming than you may have seen before (i.e., with stems-up and stems-down notes sharing the same beam). Just to be able to whale on the keyboard and still make it musical—it's the kind of thing a stressed-out pianist needs now and then!No. 2 Intermezzo in A Minor
The meditative opening theme of this piece is another in which the pianist is constantly playing 2:3 cross-rhythms. A second section has a delicate melody in high-register broken octaves, circling around almost amilessly, like buzzing insects. Then there's a third idea, honest and confiding in its simplicity, leading to a chromatic transition back to the tonic and the opening theme.No. 3 Capriccio in G Minor
I hope my upstairs neighbors will one day forgive me for the noise I have made with this piece, and Brahms for the hash I have made of it. Brahms is again in his passionate register, exploring fascinating harmonic vistas through a melody plucked out of a gush of eighth notes. The middle section is a tender, noble, moving theme—again, with the notable 2:3 cross-rhythms—climaxing in big, rich chords that are ever so much fun to play.No. 4 Intermezzo in E Major
Back to the meditative mood, Brahms tests the pianist's control of changing rhythmic patterns, hand-crossings, widely spread chords, and rich harmonic colors. The brief middle section has a nocturne-like quality, with parallel chords in the right hand part and rolling sixteenth-note patterns in the left. Instead of a full repeat of the A section, the piece ends with reminiscences of both sections.No. 5 Intermezzo in E Minor
Here's another piece I have only recently begun to study. Brahms rode the outside edge of functional harmony in this piece. Its rocking, tipping theme also makes many demands of the pianist's hands—not least of which is the control to play it all with sweetness, grace, and "most intimate sentiment."No. 6 Intermezzo in E Major
The A section of this piece mostly comprises a steady series of quarter-note chords, but their unusual harmonies may give the pianist a compensating sense of being challenged. The middle section features a lyrical tune against a rolling eighth-note accompaniment alternately involving both hands; again, expect some 2:3 cross-rhythms. The piece concludes with breathtaking tenderness.No. 7 Capriccio in D Minor
Again, I have done what I can with this piece many times, but always way under the correct tempo. It's just too neat not to play; but its A section ought to sound like a lightning storm flashing from one side of the sky to the other: chords alternating with sixteenth-note arpeggios, rhythmic displacements, pregnant dissonances... The B section has a melody in quarter-note values, displaced by half a beat, running through the middle of an accompaniment of eighth-notes alternately climbing from below and falling from above. This builds dramatically, but to nothing like the fury of the returning A section with its rapid sixteenths and diminished-seventh-chord arpeggios, and thrilling closing chords that, again, are in proportion to the entire set, and not just this one piece.
No. 1 in E-flat Major
A middle-voice melody, embedded within an E-flat pedal-point in both hands, conjures a moment of timeless, idyllic beauty. This contrasts gently with an E-flat minor middle section touched by the melancholy meditations of a nocturne.No. 2 in B-flat Minor
Here is a piece that looks far more intimidating than it should. Its persistent runs of thirty-second notes, at the marked tempo of Andante non troppo e con molto espressione, are not all that difficult. And the effort of negotiating the many flat-signs (and some double-flats!) is repaid by a lovely theme in arpeggios, and a more chordal second theme whose bittersweet inner thoughts are evident in the underlying layer of chromatic movement. This section transitions gently back to the first theme. But it is the second theme, transposed to the tonic key, that finally closes the piece.No. 3 in C-sharp Minor
This is one of my very favorite pieces. It begins with a dark melody in octaves, later heard in the middle of a texture between left-hand arpeggios and right-hand chords. The gentle middle section, in A major, has a melody full of long notes and wide leaps over rocking sixteenth-note figures, suggesting feelings of painful longing. Then the first section comes back with, if anything, richer harmonies than ever. I get verklempt just thinking about it. Remember that Rimsky-Korsakov piece I told you about long ago, the one that forced you to learn how to make a middle-voice melody sing while doing other stuff with both hands? The reason you'll want to practice that piece is so that you can play this.
Op. 118—Six Pieces
No. 1 Intermezzo in A Minor
Passionate, surging melody stretches above wide-ranging left-hand arpeggios. The harmony is enriched to within an ace of the limits of romantic tonality. And the set is off to a brilliant start.No. 2 Intermezzo in A Major
When I want to wow somebody with the beauty of Brahms with just one piece, this is often the piece I go for. Similar in texture to the previous piece, it differs greatly in character: a tender, consoling, heartwarming melody that glows even in its deepest, darkest sonorities. The middle section is a gentle, sweet melody in F-sharp minor, featuring 2:3 cross-rhythms, a middle-voice countermelody, and a sort of inverted climax, in which a series of soft, simple chords seem to form the heart of the whole piece. When the A section returns, it is gently elaborated, mainly by the addition of some chromatic passing notes.No. 3 Ballade in G Minor
I annoyed my upstairs neighbors today with this rip-roaringly feisty piece (albeit awfully under-tempo), full of bashing chords and thrilling dramatics. The theme of the dreamy middle section, initially in B major, comes back briefly at the very end. It seems to say something about how, for some heroes, death is like falling in love.No. 4 Intermezzo in F Minor
Here the two hands converse with each other in nervous little broken-chord figures. When they get a head of steam going, they almost break free of the gravity of tonality. Then they calm right down for a middle section in which four registers of the keyboard form a deceptively peaceful dialogue, made up of hand-crossings, chromatic harmonies, and monosyllabic murmurs. When the first theme returns, it has become urgently excited.No. 5 Romance in F Major
The melody of this "song without words" is found mostly in octaves in the middle of a chordal texture played by both hands. Its exquisite sweetness and moving expressiveness combine to make it another beauty spot, akin to No. 2 of the same set. At the middle of the piece is a set of variations on a four-bar phrase, like a miniature passacaglia in D major. Anything you may have learned from Chopin about grace-notes and tuplet rhythms (such as five sixteenth-notes to a quarter-note) will come in useful here.No. 6 Intermezzo in E-flat Minor
Again, the look of this piece is apt to put amateur pianists off, but at its slow Andante, largo e mesto tempo, its thirty-second-notes aren't too fast. The real challenges of this piece are keeping a steady pulse, subdividing the rhythm correctly, and navigating the tricky chromatics. In effect this is a nocturne, with a melody (sometimes two at one time) full of thoughtful musing, over a background of rippling arpeggios. The middle section is a little crisper, and even grows quite massive in its assertive power. But immediately after the climax, it dies back to a reprise of the opening theme.
Op. 119—Four Pieces
No. 1 Intermezzo in B Minor
The set opens with a short (two-page) piece in a slow 3/8 meter. At first it gives an impression like raindrops running down a windowpane. A second theme in D major is warmer, rising through chromatic deviations to a pair of well-judged climaxes, perfectly in proportion to the subdued tone of the piece. On its return, the first theme picks up some extra decoration, and the piece ends with gentle sadness. Like a good cry on a rainy day, it's all healing and not much drama.No. 2 Intermezzo in E Minor
Starting softly but with agitation, the opening theme's rhythm is at first marked by pairs of sixteenth-notes alternating between both hands. This rhythmic figure continues to serve as a motto for the piece even after we have seen variants of the same theme in steady triplet-eighths, then chords rapidly alternating between the two hands, then straight eighth-notes against a rolling accompaniment of sixteenth-notes. As so often, Brahms spotlights the richness of his harmony even at the expense of melodic beauty. The middle section features a graceful waltz theme in E major. Like the dreamy episode in op. 118 no. 3, this theme, or at least a nostalgic memento of it, comes back after the return of the agitated first theme and furnishes the closing riff of the piece.No. 3 Intermezzo in C Major
More middle-voice melody animates this playful little piece, whose wit extends to something like a musical equivalent of doubles entendres. Don't let its blithe innocence and lighthearted sparkle fool you; some of the harmonic juxtapositions in this piece are among the alternatives to "I-IV-V-I" chord progressions that Brahms explored at symphonic length.3No. 4 Rhapsody in E-flat Major
After a relatively long absence, Brahms's aggressive mode is back—and none too soon! In his last stand-alone piano work, Brahms whales on the keyboard like never before: big thick strong chords, deep growling sonorities, a C minor pedal point in one episode, twittering ornaments in another—ye gods, my neighbors must hate me! Especially when I forget that it's only 7:00 on Saturday morning (oops)! Episode 1 comes back with thrilling force, then the opening theme appears in a poky, perky guise. After a harmonic bridge passage, the keyboard abuse returns with deafening vengeance, not omitting a coda of massive... er, massiveness. Brahms, a lullaby composer? See how well you sleep with this piece banging on your ear-bones!
Trust me, if your piano can stand up to this treatment, it's ready for anything. And as for you... well, after years of fiddling with the pieces in this book, I'm not much closer to having any of these pieces concert-ready. But I have derived many fulfilling hours out of playing them as best I can (barring, you know, serious practice). And I think the exercise has advanced my sight-reading abilities and general keyboard proficiency by light years. Maybe it's hell on my neighbors, but to me it's a world of exquisite colors, textures, emotions, and energies that I am eager to explore, again and again.
1Somewhere else on Youtube—and this you can find for yourself—there is a video of a pianist-comedian doing impressions of how several great composers might have written "Happy Birthday." Predictably, the Brahms version is based on his eponymous lullaby. Don't be fooled. Brahms' music covers a wide range of expression, but on average it is much more assertive and thrilling than this gentle, soporific caricature of him. If anything, Op. 4 shows that his first instinct as a composer was, indeed, to be harsh and strident to a fault. He mellows nicely as he goes on.
2Typical Brahms! If you don't love 2:3 cross-rhythms, you may want to shop elsewhere. If you're willing to learn that they're "not difficult," this album will open many beauties to your view!
3See especially the first movement of his Third Symphony.