Our music for this week is the Rhapsody in B Minor for solo piano by Johannes Brahms.
Brahms was, like most great composers, a child prodigy. His father was a bassist in the Hamburg (Germany) Symphony Orchestra and his mother was a recital pianist. However, his parents were not typical of other prodigies’ parents. Rather than showcase him on the world stage, they put him to work earning money for their very poor young family by playing music in bars, taverns, and hotels across Germany. Fate could not wait too long, however, and his travels soon connected him with the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, who introduced him to the premiere musical circles of his day. After meeting Robert Schumann and several other household names, Brahms threw himself full-time into performing and composing.
Brahms wrote this Rhapsody during the most productive time of his life (1877-1879). During these two years, he made his residence in Italy and churned out the vast majority of his best compositions, which include his two Rhapsodies for solo piano. Both of them are dedicated to one of his many lovers but are otherwise unnamed. It is interesting to note that he titled them as Rhapsodies, implying an almost wild or uncontrollable style, but composed the works in the very formal Sonata format. In short, Sonata form begins with an opening theme, goes through a development and into a secondary theme, then recapitulates into the first theme before coming to a close. Brahms adhered quite closely to this format in his B Minor Rhapsody, but he added a small twist that you might be able to pick out if you listen carefully. Instead of giving the listener two themes and a development section, he added multiple recapitulations into the structure of the piece. In other words, the first theme begins to transition into a development stage but suddenly turns back to the original theme in a completely different key. Once he has the listener on his or her toes, Brahms is then content to move on to the secondary theme. Listen for repeated thematic material and see if you can pick out the different instances in which Brahms loops previous melodies back onto themselves.