Music eX Series Program Notes
All Program Notes by Rebecca Jemian, bio
No. 1, G Major, Op. 78 (30’)
Vivace ma non troppo
Allegro molto moderato
No. 2, A Major, Op. 100 (21’)
Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante)
No. 3, D Minor, Op. 108 (23’)
Un poco presto e con sentimento
“O tones without words, when you speak into the heart, you arouse powerfully the depths of soul within me.” Attributed to 14-year old Elisabeth Kulmann.
Throughout his life, Brahms kept a notebook of quotations that were important to him. This excerpt from his notebook attests to the power of purely instrumental music. The first violin sonata was inspired by one of Brahms’s songs, keeping the “tones” but losing the “words.”
Johannes Brahms wrote his three sonatas for violin and piano within the ten-year period of 1878 to 1888. These warm and richly conceived pieces offer a depth and intimacy characteristic of Brahms’s style, using the different registers of the violin to set moods. The first sonata is the longest, and the third sonata reflects Brahms’s mature style in which he packed four movements into a concentrated 23 minutes, shorter even than the three-movement first sonata.
By 1878, when he began composing the first sonata, the forty-five year-old Brahms was an established and respected composer. He customarily composed his music in countryside resorts during the summer, where it was easier for him to focus. The first sonata for violin and piano was composed mostly in the summer of 1879 near a lake in Austria. The pastoral quality of the second symphony, written in 1877, carries into the first sonata. The first sonata also follows his violin concerto of 1878, and the fiery nature of the concerto is answered by the gentle qualities of the sonata. The second and third sonatas were written closer together; he wrote the second in 1886, began the third sonata that same year, and finished it in 1888. Brahms spent these summers in Switzerland.
The beautiful first sonata has connections to another piece by Brahms. The theme of the last movement is drawn from the third song of his Op. 59, called “Regenlied” (Rain Song). The poem, by Klaus Groth, speaks of raindrops that lead to a world of dreams. The opening rhythm of the song “Regenlied”—and of the last movement of the violin sonata—is what musicians call a “dotted rhythmic figure”, that is, a pattern of long-short-long. (The “Star Spangled Banner” opens with a dotted figure: “O-oh say”.) In addition to using the song’s melody in the last movement, Brahms uses the dotted rhythm in the violin at the beginning of the first movement, Vivace ma non troppo (Lively, but not too much). The second movement, Adagio (Slow), unfolds languorously with an expansive and winding theme. Here, the dotted figure is used for a contrasting interlude that suggest a somber funeral march. The languorous theme returns and is finally joined by the dotted figure. The thoughtful mood of the last movement, Allegro molto moderato (Fast, but very moderate), is created through the arpeggiated accompaniment that underlies the “Regenlied” melody. Brahms ties all three movements together by bringing back the theme of the second movement, which is woven with the last movement theme as the sonata concludes. The dotted figure is heard throughout.
Lyricism abounds throughout the three movements of the second sonata, in A Major. The Allegro amabile (Fast and amiable) initiates a dialogue between piano and violin. The movement is rhapsodic, yet maintains a forward momentum. Its coda offers a time of reflection; the melodic motives are presented in greater isolation before building to a impassioned ending. The second movement combines slow and fast sections, making a single piece out of what are usually two different movements. The Andante tranquillo (Tranquil and moderate speed) resembles an intermezzo with its simply stated melody; it alternates with a Vivace (Lively) section that, like a scherzo, scampers in a rapid triple meter. Brahms creates a six-part form as these two sections trade with each other; what drives this alternation is the tonal design moving among a complex of keys, centering on D and F. The Allegro grazioso, quasi Andante (Fast and graceful, somewhat moderate) provides a contemplative close to the sonata. Brahms enhances this thoughtful quality by dwelling on the violin’s lower register and employing suspenseful arpeggios at dramatic moments in the piano. In the coda, the violin moves to its high register, intensifying the close.
|Hans von Bülow|
The last of Brahms’s sonatas for violin and piano is dedicated to his friend and colleague, Hans von Bülow. Bülow was an influential conductor of the time, whose support for Brahms and his music had grown during the 1870s. In 1880, Bülow was appointed as orchestra conductor at the court of Meiningen; he increased the standard of this orchestra and offered it to Brahms to use as a laboratory for trying out his new orchestral pieces.
In many ways, this is the most intense and compact of Brahms’s violin sonatas. The first movement, Allegro (Fast), begins with an interplay between the violin’s melody and the piano’s intricate figuration, like the last movement of the first sonata. Rhythmically, it goes off balance at times, giving the listener the sense of losing the beat. The movement rises to heights of passion before it ends softly. The slow movement, Adagio, proceeds tenderly with calm motion to create a very simple piece. The pace resumes with the third movement, Un poco presto, e con sentimento (A little rapidly, and with sentiment). A motive of two repeated notes dominates this work, darting playfully about the piano first and then in the violin, at times lending a serious undercurrent. The Presto agitato (Very fast and agitated) has a symphonic scope, opening boldly with chords sprawling across the piano registers and a driving accompaniment in the violin. Brahms makes full use of the two instruments in building this finale; they urge each other on, evoking large forces with grandly-textured themes.
|Brahms & Reményi|
Brahms’s earliest experiences as a touring musician were with violinists, and these were with top musicians.Eduard Reményi (1830–98) was a Hungarian violinist who met Brahms in Hamburg in 1850, a time when many Hungarians were using that port city as their point of emigration to the west. Through Reményi, Brahms learned about gypsy music. Reményi and Brahms toured Germany in 1853, and it was during this tour that Brahms met Joseph Joachim. Joachim (1831–1907) was taken with Brahms’s musical sensitivity and reflective personality. The two became close friends, sharing musical and personal insights; their friendship, although tested and strained at times, lasted for decades. These three violin sonatas bear the imprint of these violinists.
|Brahms & Joachim|
Ballades, Op. 10 (22’)
Andante—Allegro non troppo—Molto staccato e leggiero
Andante con moto
Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), Op. 118 (24’)
Fantasies, Op. 116 (23’)
“…music such as you have never heard before.” Robert Schumann wrote this to his wife Clara, on the day Brahms first played his music for them in 1853. Within a month, Schumann published an article in which he introduced Brahms to the musical world with extravagant praise.
The pieces on today’s recital are bookends to Brahms’s career, composed in 1854, when he was barely 21 years old, and in 1892, five years before his death. He wrote the Ballades in 1854, when he lived near Clara Schumann during her husband’s illness. Opuses 116 and 118 are among Brahms’s last works, composed around 1892. Saddened by the deaths of close friends, Brahms had largely stopped composing. He picked up his pen again after hearing a marvelous clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, for whom he wrote the clarinet quintet, Op. 115, in 1891 and the two clarinet sonatas, Op. 120, in 1894. Like many other composers, Brahms played piano well, and piano works figured largely throughout his career.These piano works belong to the category of character pieces: short, independent compositions that portray a particular quality or mood. The form is not specified, and may be a ternary design (ABA), a freely-sectioned piece, or even a sonata form. (Sonata form is the design used for first movements of the multi-movement pieces called sonatas.) A piece labeled Romance may have a dreamy quality, whereas a Capriccio is fast and flighty. A scale of these pieces, moving from subdued and calm to impassioned and quixotic might be Romance, Intermezzo, Ballade, Rhapsody, Fantasy, Capriccio. However, composers use these titles somewhat freely. Thus, the third of the Ballades, op. 10, is subtitled Intermezzo. Mendelssohn often called pieces of this nature “Songs without words”, because these pieces create a unique mood in the same way that a song for solo voice and piano does—except, with these piano pieces, the words are not present to clarify the meaning of the music. Character pieces belonging to a single opus number (that is, that are published as a group) are similar to a suite because the pieces are loosely joined in terms of form, tempo and tonal design.
|Robert & Clara Schumann|
Brahms was just over 20 years old when he met Robert Schumann, one of the most respected composers of his day, and his wife Clara, one of Europe’s foremost pianists. Going with his friend, the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, to Düsseldorf, Germany, at the end of September 1853, Brahms played some of his own compositions for the Schumanns. The couple encouraged him to extend his visit, and Brahms stayed for several weeks. The Schumanns introduced him to many friends and musicians, and this association further kindled Brahm’s creativity. Only a few months later, Schumann, suffering from poor mental health, was committed to an institution after trying to commit suicide and remained there until his death in 1856. Hearing of Schumann’s illness, Brahms rushed back to Düsseldorf to offer assistance to Clara, who had six children and one on the way. Brahms assisted the Schumanns, continued to compose, and made concert tours with Clara and Joachim, the violinist. Following Robert’s death, Clara and Brahms maintained a steady friendship characterized by great openness and candor. He always sought her opinions of his compositions, and she frequently performed his music on her concerts. Brahms grieved deeply when Clara died in 1896.
The romantic literature of the period inspired Brahms to write his four Ballades, Op. 10. While visiting the Schumanns in 1853, he met Julius O. Grimm, a choral conductor, who introduced him to the Scottish collection called “Voices of the People” by Johann Gottfried Herder. Brahms dedicated these pieces to Grimm, and the first ballade is linked to the poem “Edward,” a tragic tale of a son’s misdeed. This first piece features both a turning note figure and a descending leap with an echo effect (which suggests the mother’s cry, “Edward, Edward!”). The second Ballade is voiced lyrically with a descant hovering above the melody. The third Ballade, subtitled Intermezzo, drives forward impetuously and rhythmically. The final Ballade blends a slow melody with a pressing accompaniment.
Fast forward nearly forty years to the beginning of the 1890s. Brahms had enjoyed great success as a composer since the period of the Ballades. After moving to Vienna in 1862, his career solidified and he became one of the most esteemed composers of the period. He achieved a certain stability over the years, living in the same apartment from 1871 until his death and settling into a routine. He spent most of his time in Vienna and other cities during the concert season and then enjoyed summers at a resort where he could take long walks and focus on composing. Starting in 1889, Brahms spent summers in Bad Ischl, a picturesque spa town in northern Austria. Brahms lived simply, and had amassed a degree of wealth. He indulged in trips with his friends and treated those close to him with generosity. Numerous accolades such as honorary degrees and keys to cities came his way. Yet, as the 1890s began, Brahms felt sadness as many friends passed away with greater frequency. He declared in 1890 that he was through with composing and followed that a year later by making his will. However, his creativity was piqued by hearing Richard Mühlfeld, a musician who picked up the clarinet after an early career as a violinist. Mühlfeld may have primed the pump for Brahms to write not only pieces including clarinet, but also such pieces as the Opp. 116 and 118.
Like other late pieces by Brahms, the six movements of Op. 118 exemplify extreme compression and tight economy. Except for the first Intermezzo, they are all in some kind of ternary form in which one theme is used for exterior sections that surround a contrasting middle part—basically ABA. Brahms frequently tightens the structure by sneaking elements of the main theme into the contrasting section. Each movement contrasts moods with that of its neighbors; the first movement, an Intermezzo, is a richly textured lament, while the following Intermezzo is tender, with gently caressing dialogues between the inner voices in the middle sections. The third movement, Ballade, has robust full-voiced A sections and is quieter and calmer in the middle; this movement is almost like a dance. The fourth movement uses sparkling, effervescent motion to mask a sophisticated canon. The Romance is restful; its repeated phrase is embellished in each new appearance. The final Intermezzo has a wispy texture that trails a sense of mystery and atmosphere; this provides a sober and thoughtful end to the set.
The Fantasies, Op. 116, have been described as a “multi-piece” with “thematic, harmonic and stylistic connections.” In other words, instead of merely being seven independent movements, they form a cohesive group. The first Capriccio seems to start mid-sentence and explores multiple ways of using the theme. The ensuing Intermezzo contrasts a questioning melody with a gossamer-like middle section. A Capriccio marked by tumbling themes follows. Movements 4-6 are all Intermezzi and, considered as a group, effectively form the slow movement of the set. The dreamy fourth movement alternates a low-voiced motive with a melody that emerges from on high. The fifth movement uses disconnected motives to create a disjunct mood. The sixth movement is a stately chorale with a gradually expanding texture. After these slow pieces, the final Capriccio bursts forth with a kaleidoscope of sections; its middle section is especially notable for its tenor-voice melody surrounded by cascades.
Brahms surely had the Schumanns in mind when he composed Opp. 116 and 118. For Clara’s birthday in 1892, he wrote, “You and your husband constitute the most beautiful experience of my life, and represent all that is richest and most noble in it.”
No. 1, E Minor, Op. 38 (23’)
Allegro non troppo
Allegretto quasi Menuetto
No. 2, F Major, Op. 99 (27’)
“With this I rinse my mouth every morning.” Brahms made this comment about J.S. Bach’s monumental collection of preludes and fugues, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and he kept a copy of the score on his piano so that he could play from it daily.
Brahms composed his two cello sonatas at an interval of more than twenty years, 1862–65 and 1886. The period between the two pieces saw many changes in Brahms’s life and compositional style. At the time Brahms began writing the first sonata, he had just moved to Vienna from Germany. Vienna was the center of European music-making, and Brahms was curious to find his place there. Naturally, he wanted his first efforts in this important city to make strong impressions on musical colleagues, audiences, and potential patrons.
The first sonata is ambitious: its bold musical arc reaches from the declamatory power of the first movement to the artful fugue-inspired finale. By 1886, when he wrote his second sonata for cello and piano, Brahms was a known quantity, respected not only in Vienna but across all of Europe. He had just completed the last of his four symphonies, and his reputation was well-established. The second sonata presents an assured maturity that permits its dramatic nature to emerge. Both pieces reflect a composer who is deeply committed to music of great integrity.
Brahms’s cello sonatas fit in the tradition of the previous masters. Haydn loved the cello and wrote concertos for it; Beethoven loved the cello and composed sonatas. In the generation before Brahms, both Schumann and Chopin had created works for cello and piano. Brahms adds to the repertoire for this duo, finding ways to balance the disparate voices of the piano and cello.
Brahms’s distinctive voice is already clear by the time of his first cello sonata. This sonata is the first of his instrumental duos; he had already composed a piano trio, two piano quartets, his piano quintet, and two string sextets. While it might seem that it would be simpler to compose for fewer instruments, it is actually quite a challenge to present one’s musical ideas with such economy—similar to the idea that a bicycle requires more skill to ride than a three-wheeled vehicle. Brahms solves the potential problem—that the piano’s extensive range could cover the sound of the cello—in several ways. The cello is often given the melody, with the piano playing a discreet accompaniment. Brahms avoids using the two instruments in the same register at the same time. He also permits the instruments to play individually on occasion. The two instruments are partners in the purest, most democratic, style of chamber music.
Conservative in terms of key, the sonata stays close to the overall E Minor. The somewhat serious nature of the first movement, Allegro non troppo (Fast, but not too much) is well answered by the middle movement. The Allegretto quasi Menuetto (Moderately fast, like a Minuet) adheres to minuet and trio model, with a lighthearted minuet followed by a trio which presents longer lines; the treble register of the piano in the minuet enhances the genial effect. Brahms exercises both imagination and technical prowess when he combines fugue with sonata form in the finale, Allegro. (In a fugue, each “voice” of the texture—often in the ranges of soprano, alto, tenor and bass—enters individually, imitating the tune stated by the first voice. This kind of contrapuntal writing requires a special technique, and the style is not usually employed in chamber music pieces.) Brahms demonstrates seriousness and skill by producing a learned scholarly fugue in the manner of J.S. Bach, instead of a lighter form such as a rondo or theme with variations.
Brahms dedicated his first cello sonata to his cello-playing friend Josef Gänsbacher. Gänsbacher was multi-talented, being also a singer, musicologist and lawyer in Vienna. He was in his early 30s when Brahms composed this piece. It has been reported that “when his Viennese friend Josef Gänsbacher complained during their performance of Brahms’s first cello sonata that he could not hear himself play the cello part over Brahms’s forceful piano, Brahms laconically responded, ‘Lucky you.’”
Brahms composed the second sonata for cello and piano while spending the summer at a resort town in Switzerland. During the same summer, he also produced the second violin sonata, op. 100. This second cello sonata presents a wide range of expressive timbres and textures that increase the dramatic scope. For example, the opening of the second movement, Adagio affettuoso (Very slow, with tender warmth), is especially striking with the cello playing a pizzicato (plucked) bassline while the piano has a chorale texture in the middle register. Furthermore, the tonal design of this sonata goes further afield than does the first sonata. The second sonata is more compact than the first, concentrating four movements into a timespan that is barely longer than the three movements of the first sonata.
The two instruments are carefully intertwined in the first movement, Allegro vivace (Fast and lively), introducing a soaring melody in the cello supported by an agitated undercurrent. The remarkable texture of pizzicato cello with piano chorale in the slow movement is further developed during the movement and reappears to great effect at the climax. The Allegro passionato (Fast, passionate) is quite agitated rhythmically as well as tonally. The first melody resembles the theme of the last movement of Brahms’s third symphony in its relentless drive, and a calm section breaks the momentum briefly. The finale, Allegro molto (Very fast), begins as the cello presents a sweet theme along with the piano’s unassuming accompaniment. The two instruments switch roles in the second phrase, and a process of change is underway. Rhythms become more complex, harmonies turn unexpectedly, and the texture and dynamics combine in an explosive chemical reaction. The ending is both powerful and tender as it recalls the pizzicato of the second movement.
Brahms—Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet
Piano Quartet No. 1, G Minor, Op. 25 (40’)
Intermezzo—Trio: Allegro, ma non troppo
Andante con moto
Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto
Piano Quintet, F Minor, Op. 34 (45’)
Allegro non troppo
Andante, un poco Adagio
Finale: Poco sostenuto—Allegro non troppo
“His music and Schumann’s have in common above all purity and inner nobility. There is no seeking after applause in Brahms’s music, no narcissistic affectation. Everything is sincere and truthful.” —The great critic Eduard Hanslick wrote this in 1862, after hearing Brahms’s two piano quartets.
The Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, and the Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, were composed in a momentous period, between 1861 and 1864. This period marked the end of Brahms’s living in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany and his relocation to Vienna, Austria. These chamber music pieces precede his symphonies and can be seen as essays toward writing for full orchestra. Like many of his other works, these went through multiple stages before settling into their final versions. They are expansive in design, employing string instruments that cover the low-to-high registers, and, by including the piano, offer the potential for rich and varied textures.
Brahms wrote two quartets for piano and strings in 1861-62, no. 1 in G Minor and no. 2, op. 26, in A Major. He felt himself to be very much a north German and wanted to live near his parents in Hamburg. Professionally, he desired a position with one of the musical institutions of Hamburg—in particular, he hoped to be the next music director of the city’s orchestra. Most of his time was spent composing (his pieces were steadily being published and performed across Europe), and he also conducted a women’s choir during this period. He lived with his parents for awhile before taking rooms that offered more independence and privacy. It was in this location that he composed these two quartets and some of his variations for piano. The pair of quartets is described as “unabashedly innovative. Both are massive in scale, lasting nearly three-quarters of an hour in performance.” His dear friend, Clara Schumann, played piano in the premiere of the G Minor quartet during the fall of 1861.
This was a poignant period of his life; the young composer, still under 30, was trying to find a place he could call home, hoping it would be Hamburg but being open to other possibilities. Brahms traveled a bit during the early part of 1862 and visited Vienna for the first time in the fall of 1862. After an extended stay, he decided to move to Vienna permanently. Back north in Hamburg, the position of music director of the orchestra was given to someone else, and Brahms knew it was time for a change.
|Baron Reinhard von Dalwigk|
Brahms dedicated this quartet to Baron Reinhard von Dalwigk, an official who worked for the unification of Germany. The quartet has a masterful pace. The first three movements are appealing in their warmth and breadth. The Intermezzo is imbued with an insistent yearning, and its Trio is fugue-like. The Andante con moto (Moderately with motion) follows in chorale style. Yet it is in the last movement, the Rondo alla Zingarese (Rondo, in the gypsy style), that the quartet catches fire. Its main theme, to which the Rondo returns several times, is thrilling, and the contrasting episodes alternately declaim and sparkle. Brahms had learned about the exciting capriciousness of gypsy music from Eduard Reményi, a violinist with whom he played duo concerts in 1853. The work has continued to thrill audiences ever since its premiere. In fact, the iconoclastic composer Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated it in 1937, adding even more bling by such strokes as giving the fast runs to the xylophone!
The Piano Quintet, Op. 34, dates from 1864, but this was really its third incarnation. Brahms originally composed it in 1862 as a string quintet using two cellos, following a similar piece by Schubert. Then in 1864 he transformed it into a work for two pianos. Finally, he settled on a version that combined strings with piano, his only piece for this ensemble. The quintet is dedicated to Princess Anna von Hesse, a young wife and mother who died in 1865 from complications of childbirth.
|Princess Anna von Hesse|
Brahms set down the musical ideas of the piece around the same time as he was writing the piano quartet, Op. 25, but continued to revise its instrumental realization, even as he was moving to Vienna. Perhaps his acts of domestic and professional resettlement—from Hamburg, to Vienna, spending his summers in the countryside—contributed to his quest to resituate this composition for different ensembles.
Clara Schumann wrote Brahms in July 1864 about the second version for two pianos: “The work is splendid…but it cannot be called a sonata. Rather it is a work so full of ideas that it could have—must have—an orchestra for its interpretation!” Another friend, Hermann Levi, wrote Brahms in November 1864 when the piano quintet appeared, “The quintet is beautiful beyond words. …You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty… a masterpiece of chamber music.”
Although cast in sonata form, the first movement, Allegro non troppo (Fast, but not too much), offers an abundance of themes—and this is one of the first clues that the quintet has a broad reach. Its drama begins when a theme is stated in unison in three octaves, and its coda unfolds peacefully over a tonic pedal. The Andante, un poco Adagio (Moderate, a bit slow) proceeds with an elegant grace. The piano presents and develops a stately melody with afterbeat support from the strings. Even the middle section, with its increased motion, maintains the equanimity; like the first movement, this also ends with a restorative coda. The following Scherzo begins quietly with a theme that darts about furtively before erupting in bold unison. Brahms expands this movement, treating the opening theme as a fugato, and offering a more calm middle section. The Finale: Poco sostenuto (Finale: a little sustained) begins profoundly as Brahms conjures Baroque style counterpoint through the fugal accumulation of voices. After this dramatic introduction, the rondo gets underway. The effects of counterpoint are present throughout the rondo, even into the lengthy closing coda, and this unifies the piece.
One scholar sums up the quintet this way: “It is perhaps the most tightly integrated work of Brahms’s first maturity, especially in the way harmonic and melodic details determine large-scale structure. …Also important in the F minor Quintet is the technique of thematic transformation, whereby themes retain their basic contour and length but are altered in mood or character.”
|Timeline of pieces|
|Born in Hamburg, Germany
|Living in Düsseldorf to be near Schumanns, during Robert’s illness||1854|
|Ballades, Op. 10
|Piano Quartet No. 1, G Minor, Op. 25
|Move to Vienna
|Piano Quintet, F Minor, Op. 34
|Cello Sonata #1, E Minor, Op. 38
|Composed Symphonies 1 and 2
|First trip to Italy, Grew his beard||1878|
|Violin Sonata No. 1, G Major, Op. 78
|Offered Meiningen Court Orchestra to try out new pieces||1881|
|Cello Sonata No. 2, F Major, Op. 99
|Violin Sonata No. 2, A Major, Op. 100
|Violin Sonata No. 3, D Minor, Op. 108
|Vowed to stop composing
|Fantasy Pieces, Op. 116
||by 1892||Concert 2|
|Piano Pieces, Op. 118
|Composes last piece, Op. 122, Chorale Preludes for organ||1896|
|Dies of liver cancer in Vienna
||3 April 1897|