Canadian pianist André Laplante is a firmly established virtuoso of the great romantic repertoire. He garnered international attention after winning prizes at the Geneva and Sydney International Piano [...]
They spoke about it
Like Mozart eight decades earlier, Brahms was taught to play the violin (cello, too) while still a pre-school child, by a father who was a professional musician. Also like Mozart, the piano fascinated “Hannes” the first time he heard one, and became his instrument of choice — as it was Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn’s, Chopin’s, Liszt’s, et aliorum. From then on, however, the life-patterns of Wolfgang Amadé de Salzburg and Johannes de Hamburg diverged, until both migrated to Vienna, where they died a century apart.
Father Johan Jakob Brahms and his wife Christiane lived with their children in poverty in Hamburg’s Gengviertel. Despite the family’s precariously straitened circumstances, “Hannes” was enrolled in a private school at age six, where he learned to read both French and English (yet was never able to speak either one). His musical talents manifested themselves even earlier on, and were encouraged by caring parents.
When he was seven they paid for outside tuition until, three years later, the boy was commended to Eduard Marxsen, a conscientious local composer and pedagog whose influence was lifelong. While first impressions were not overwhelming, Marxsen discovered bit by piece the potential of his young charge, and instituted intensive training in harmony, counterpoint, theory, transposition, and, most profoundly, an appreciation of the German Baroque and Classical heritage that suffused Brahms’ later music.
At the age of ten, Johannes played his first concert, a private affair, but didn’t perform on a public stage until his fifteenth year, by which time unrelieved poverty at home necessitated his Klavierspielend not just evenings but oftimes nights in the saloons and brothels along Hamburg’s notorious St. Pauli waterfront. Then, in 1849, Brahms met Eduard Reményi, a Hungarian violinist three years his senior, who had fled from the revolutions of 1848 in Central Europe to northwestern Germany. In 1849, they began a touring association that lasted into 1853. Not only did Reményi instill a lifelong fascination with “Hungarian” music (actually Verbunkos, popularized by gypsies, rather than echt Magyar), he introduced his younger colleague to the slightly older but already celebrated violinist, Joseph Joachim.
When Reményi and Brahms parted ways after Weimar, following their famous meeting with Liszt that left Brahms musically unmoved, Joachim dispatched his new friend to Düsseldorf. There, on September 30, 1853, Brahms presented himself chez Schumann; the ensuing visit stimulated Robert to take up his pen for the first time in ten years. In an article (his last ever) for the November issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he hailed Brahms as “a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes stood guard… one man who would show his mastery, not through a gradual process but, like Athene, sprung fully armed from the head of Zeus.”
By year’s end, 20-year-old Brahms was famous wherever German was read or spoken. Not only did Breitkopf u. Härtel publish his early works, so did Senff. In 1860, he met, and thereafter was exclusively published by Fritz Simrock. Virtually nothing is known of Brahm’s student pieces; he destroyed all vestiges before his death, along with sketches of subsequent origin, and much correspondence. The first surviving work, published by Senff in 1854 as Op. 4 is an undated Scherzo in E-flat minor for piano, probably composed in 1851.
While Chopin and Schumann can be heard as influences on the 18-year-old’s style, this music is already startlingly Brahm’s own. Even more so were the piano works of 1852, during the Reményi period — i.e., the F-sharp minor Piano Sonata, published as No. 2, Op. 2, by B u. H in 1854, bearing the first of many dedications to Clara Schumann; also the slow movement of the C-major Piano Sonata, published out of sequence in 1853 as No. 1, Op. 1 (inscribed to Joachim); and, conjecturally, the second movement (Andante espressivo) and fourth (Intermezzo: Rückblick Andante molto) of the F-minor Sonata, his third, greatest and last for piano, published as Op. 5 by Senff in 1854 dedicated to the Countess Ida von Hohenthal of Leipzig, who had been his hostess, and agreed to retain Brahms’ younger brother Fritz as music teacher of her children.
The remaining three movements of the Op. 1 were completed in the spring of 1853, prior to Düsseldorf but after Weimar, along with further parts of Op. 5. The latter was not finished, however, until the autumn of 1853, at Düsseldorf, and perhaps at Hanover where Brahms went next, to report to Joachim on his Schumann visit. Ahead of him at year’s end lay Leipzig, and the public premieres there of Opp. 1 and 2, where also he hand-delivered manuscripts to the offices of Breitkopf u. Härtel. In the audience, at his Gewandhaus debut were both Liszt and Berlioz, who voiced praise — the magnanimous Liszt more notably, without rancor that Brahms had rejected his invitation to join a New German Music coven.
If not quite the culmination of Brahms’ earliest creative period, the F-minor Sonata proved to be the climactic work for keyboard. In sheer size it surpassed Liszt’s B-minor, contemporaneously composed in 1852-53 but not otherwise analogous.
Brahms wrote formidably difficult music, not only then but later, for a composer whose hands were “small, the fingers without cushions,” in the words of Clara Schumann’s English pupil Florence May, who published a Life of Brahms in 1905 — the most comprehensive description that has survived of him in print.
In Op. 5, his one striking departure from sonata structure as Beethoven left it for Schubert and the legion who followed was a five-movement form, with a ruminative Intermezzo between the Scherzo third movement and Rondo finale. Not only that, the chief theme of this extra movement derives from the opening theme of his “official” slow movement, although this is in C minor while the Intermezzo is in B-flat minor. Brahms subtitled the latter “Backward Glance,” and underlined its introspection throughout with a drumbeat in the bass register.
All five movements of the F-minor Sonata begin either in duple or in triple meter, and yet, rather than produce monotony over a span of nearly forty minutes, they are enlivened by endlessly varietal cross-rhythms and harmonic surprises. If this work seems a descendent of Beethoven (the Fifth Symphony, but especially the Hammerklavier Sonata), Brahms’ own voice declares hitself at once, for the duration. We have been conditioned to think of Mendelssohn and Mahler along with Mozart as stylistic precocities unique to Western music. Yet Brahms created his trilogy of piano sonatas between the ages of 18 and 20, using a style that served him for the next four decades: in other words, for the rest of his life!
The Sonata in F minor begins Allegro maestoso in 3/4 time with a sonata-form structure through which runs a triplet-plus-quarter note motto that resembles Beethoven’s Fifth without duplicating it (that Brahms introduces this in C minor cannot be dismissed as coincidence). After the terse extension of a main theme that basically embellishes two massive chords, a second theme follows con espressione in A-flat major, and turns out to be a metamorphosis of the main theme. Following a repeat of the exposition, his volcanic development of the main theme is interrupted by a brand new theme in the alto clef, marked quasi cello, espressivo, after which the development resumes, leading to the recap and a thunderously choral coda, più animato.
The subsequent Andante espressivo (A-flat major; 2/4 time) is prefaced with three lines by the poet Sternau:
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondnacht scheint, Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint, Und halten sich selig umfangen.
Twilight descends, moonlight glows, Two hearts become in love, Embraced in bliss.
This is a slower movement without being conventionally slow – andante, after all, means walking in Italian. Its main theme descends in thirds from E-flat2, with a thrill in tempo on middle-C before returning at irregular intervals to E-flat2. The second theme begins ben cantando with a dotted-rhythm over staccato sixteenth-notes, leading to a rapturous section in D-flat major (aussert leise und zart), this in 3/8 time. A D-flat major coda, after the main theme returns, brings a sublime new theme with repeated A-flats in the bass clef; this builds from ppp to a passionate fff climax before a pendant ending in nine arpeggiated chords.
The Scherzo, Allegro energico, is a kind of diabolical waltz in F minor (… had Liszt been German instead of Franco-Hungarian…), with a chordal D-flat Trio to be played legato. The Scherzo is repeated verbatim. The aforecited Intermezzo follows in B-flat minor, with a funerary rataplan in the bass, related to the first-movement motto — and a melancholy theme derived from the second movement. This leads without pause to the Finale, a modified rondo in 6/8 duple-meter which begins Allegro moderato, ma rubato, but not jauntily: in F minor, this is sterner stuff. A theme follows in F major based on Joachim’s personal motto.
The original F-minor theme returns pianissimo for development over D-flat drumbeats in the bottom octave. A hymn-like subject in D-flat comes next (the c section of this irregular rondo, whose F-A-E theme never returns). It is expanded canonically with the F-minor main theme (now texturally thinner), leading to a very fast coda in F major with a grandioso statement of the main theme at the end.
The Op. 79 Rhapsodies were his largest solo works from 1871 through 1893 without rivaling the size of his three astonishing solo sonatas, composed before Brahms was legally an adult. But the Rhapsodies are plainly kindred despite their conciseness expressively passionate without restraint or surcease: Passion, however, distilled by nearly 30 years of adulthood.
For sixteen years, Vienna had been his home (he never forgave Hamburg for slighting him in 1862 when he petitioned to be conductor of the Philharmonic; a popular tenor got the job instead). In fact Hamburg did Brahms an unwitting favor, for Vienna was still unchallenged as the musical capital of continental Europe, as it had been for more than a century. On May 7, 1863, the august Singakademie elected him its new director; concurrently he began to give piano lessons, not because of financial need but out of kindness to petitioners.
Among his first pupils was Elisabet von Stockhausen (b. 1847), the daughter of a diplomat who had studied with Chopin and Alkan. Her subsequent marriage to a composer-conductor of Franco-Viennese lineage, Heinrich Picot von Herzogenberg, removed the couple to Leipzig, but their friendship with Brahms flourished. He relished Elisabet’s youthful comeliness, her superlative cuisine, her scrupulous criticism of his music, and her coddling confidence. It was a comradeship conducted chiefly through correspondence until “Liedel’s” untimely death in 1892, yet so tender that Clara Schumann was frequently and spitefully jealous. To this singular woman, after much cogitation, Brahms dedicated his Op. 79 Rhapsodies.
Almost everyone who has written about them (beginning with Elisabet herself) has remarked on the oxymoron of such structurally formal music (in sonata-form) being called Rhapsodies. However, when Brahms introduced them at Krefeld on January 20, 1880, he listed the first simply as Capriccio (Presto agitato) and the second as Molto passionato.
By the rules, No. 1 is more likely a sonata-rondo whose soaring second theme returns midway in B major, creating in effect a central section. No. 2 has no such ambiguity — it is strict sonata-form (i.e. exposition, development and reprise) yet harmonically freer, even daring, as if reluctant to commit to G minor until the development section. Malcolm MacDonald in his excellent Brahms (1990, J.M. Dent / Schirmer) characterizes the solo piano music from Op. 76 through Op. 119 as “philosophical miniatures.” But Ivor Key, even more insightful if less comprehensive, in his Johannes Brahms (1989, Christopher Helm / Amadeus Press), is right on target when he writes that the Rhapsodies, Op. 79, “deploy a grand passion with no punches pulled.” Brahms wrote them at the resort town of Pörtschach, on Lake Wörth in Carinthia, where he summered in 1877, 1878 and 1879, until Ischl took its place in 1880, to which he returned from 1889 until his death. Pörtschach, though, inspired his Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto, as well as most of Op. 76 and all of Op. 79 for piano, until a horde of estival tourists made it too crowded for Brahms’ taste or comfort.
© Roger Dettmer