Brahms Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, performed by the superstar trio of Leonidas Kavakos, Yo Yo Ma, and Emmanuel Ax.

You won’t find a better ensemble than this one. Each of these three musicians is at the top of their respective instrumental fields. Yo Yo Ma rose to fame as a child prodigy and continues to amaze crowds around the world with his bravado and energy. Emmanuel Ax has dominated the world of the piano since winning the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974. Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most versatile musicians and conductors alive today, has been atop the violin world since his victory at the Sibelius and Paganini competitions in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The three of them have been touring the world for several years now, playing the best of the piano trio repertoire to packed audiences around the globe.

The second piano trio of Brahms was composed at the height of his compositional maturity. By this point in his career, he had overcome the massive shadow that Beethoven cast on all who followed him. He was now writing music with the comfort of a well-established reputation behind him, and this confidence comes through in his music. The third movement of the C Major trio exudes confidence while also combining elements of Romanticism and Classicism into a cohesive whole. There are strands of Mendelssohn in the dark emotionality of the movement, but there are also playful sections that remind the listener of Beethoven’s lighter moods.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #18 – Brahms Symphony #1

Hello all,

Our music for this week features the first symphony of Johannes Brahms. It is hard to believe that Brahms hasn’t made it into our Top 25 until now, but he certainly deserves at least one spot. As with many of the other great composers on this countdown, choosing which Brahms composition to feature was very difficult. Brahms’ violin concerto, fourth symphony, Requiem, and piano concerto are all incredible works of music. However, I felt that the first symphony captured much of the emotional depth and intensity that Brahms brings to the table.

Brahms idolized his German predecessor Beethoven, and you can hear unmistakable echoes of Beethoven in this first symphony. It has been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” (Beethoven wrote nine symphonies) for this reason. Brahms supposedly put so much pressure on himself to adequately honor Beethoven with this symphony that he revised it for over five years. In fact, he had avoided writing a symphony until age 43 precisely because he wanted to build up enough experience with other compositions – chamber music, solo instrumental music, etc. – so that he had a better chance of meeting a Beethoven-esque standard when he finally arrived at the symphonic format. After this symphony had finally been premiered (with great success), it was as if Brahms breathed a huge sigh of relief. From that point onward, the floodgates opened; in the next decade, he completed three more symphonies and three concertos.

Structurally, this symphony progresses – as perhaps Brahms did himself – from cautious to confident. The opening movement is largely subdued and, at times, emotionally fraught. The final movement is heroic and unabashed.  

Enjoy!

T

The Duet #3 – Brahms Double Concerto

Hello all,

Our series on famous duets continues with the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter* on the violin and Maximilian Hornung on the cello.

In my opinion, the most amazing thing about this concerto is that Brahms didn’t play a single stringed instrument. He was a pianist. While this certainly makes Brahms’ compositional ability even more impressive,** it is helpful to know that he was very strongly motivated to compose a piece that included a violin part. Brahms’ friendship with virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (who had premiered Brahms’ monumental violin concerto) had recently become strained after Brahms testified on behalf of Joachim’s wife in a divorce proceeding. Historians believe that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto as a reconciliation gift for his friend.

The Double Concerto is jam-packed with dense and complex melodies. Brahms does a masterful job of balancing the rich colors of the cello with the bright colors of the violin, and the two become, in his hands, a unified voice. There is a certain harmonic glow about this piece that is characteristic of Brahms’ later years. This is particular evident in the lovely second movement, which begins at 18:51 and soars to new heights of color through a unison melody shared by the two solo instruments.

Enjoy!

T

*Those of you who know my unabashed trepidations about the artistry of Anne-Sophie Mutter may be surprised by the choice of this video. However, I must give credit where credit is due. While Mutter may not be my choice for Beethoven or Mozart, her ultra-Romantic style is absolutely perfect for playing Brahms. I think she does an incredible job of capturing the rich core of this powerful violin part.

**Brahms himself was concerned about his lack of experience writing for stringed instruments. He wrote a letter to Clara Schumann expressing doubt about his ability to properly write a double concerto, and it was her encouraging reply that motivated him to continue composing.  

Free, but Happy

Hello all,

Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.

“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.

This third movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the definition of Romantic-era lyricism.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #4

Hello all,

For the final installment in our series on Brahms’ symphonies, we will hear his Fourth Symphony (my personal favorite), played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

The Fourth Symphony is the capstone. It is structurally perfect, emotionally overwhelming, and arrestingly personal. It is Brahms’ worldview in a piece of music, saturated with sadness, joy, hopelessness, and an occasional burst of inspiration.

This was the first full symphony I ever performed. It was in 2008, I was 15, and the conductor of the Chicago Lyric Opera was conducting the NH All-State Orchestra. During the first evening of rehearsals, he mercilessly drilled us on the technical elements of the symphony. On the second day, he stretched our expressive capacity to its limit. In the concert the following day, he found a way to let the orchestra loose. It was magical.

Here’s what to listen for in each movement:

  • The opening melody is timeless. It returns over and over again, each time sweeping into the spotlight with an overwhelming and graceful swell. Listen for the melancholy sighs of the violins that ride on the rolling notes of the cellos.
  • The fanfare at the opening is just a introduction; the real melody starts at 13:18 (with the secondary theme starting at 15:27) and seems to calm the agitated atmosphere of the dark first movement. In my humble opinion, this theme may just be Brahms’ loveliest.
  • In homage to Beethoven, the third movement is a dance. It was so popular at the premiere that the audience ask that it be repeated as the encore. It is the lone moment of cheerfulness in the entire symphony.
  • The fourth movement is a Ciaconna (a form of Baroque dance). The opening theme is built on a simple ascending scale that Brahms then proceeded to write 34 variations for. This movement returns to the darkness of the first movement, then descends to even darker depths.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #3

Hello all,

In our first two installments of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, we learned about the difficulty he had escaping the shadow of the great Beethoven. We saw how he agonized over his first symphony for more than a decade largely because of his fear of not measuring up to Beethoven’s standard. We then saw how his second symphony was the beginning of his liberation from this shadow. His third symphony, however, convinced even his most vocal critics that he was on par with Beethoven. One of them even wrote that this third Symphony was “Brahms’ Eroica.” (The Eroica Symphony is one of Beethoven’s most monumental compositions). Another hailed it as being “as close to musical perfection” as he had ever heard.

Here are a few things to listen for:

  • You may recall that the second symphony began with a very simple three-note motif: D, C sharp, D. As it turns out, Brahms utilized three-note motifs many times throughout his composing career. For instance, he wrote an entire sonata for the great violinist Joseph Joachim based on the notes F, A, and E (we actually still refer to the sonata as the “F-A-E Sonata”), which he took from Joachim’s life motto: “Free, but lonely” (in German, Frei Aber Einsam). Before writing the third symphony, Brahms declared himself “Free, but happy” (Frei Aber Froh) and subsequently based the entire symphony off of a three-note motif that consists of the notes F, A, and F.
  • Most compositions involving orchestras end in dramatic fashion, with trumpets blasting and timpani clamoring. This symphony is wonderful because it ends the symphony in pianissimo.
  • Brahms must truly have been high on life when he wrote the symphony, for he throws the listener an abundance of musical “curveballs.” For instance, there is no slow movement in the symphony; all of the movements are at roughly the same tempo. In all my years of ensemble performance, I can’t think of another symphony in which that is true.
  • The third movement is the most famous and well-loved part of the symphony. If you listen to anything, listen to that. It starts at minute 22.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #2

Hello all,

We are returning this week to our series on the symphonies of Johannes Brahms. This week we will hear his second symphony, performed by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

Brahms composed this symphony in less than a year, which is astonishing given that the first symphony took fifteen years to complete. It seems that Brahms gained confidence after publishing his first symphony, perhaps because it finally freed him from the shadow of Beethoven.

The symphony begins very simply. The cellos carry the first three notes (D, C sharp, D), and the French horns lay a melody over this foundation. Throughout the course of the symphony, Brahms expands on these three notes in a variety of ways. Listen for the many ways he uses this miniature motif (hint: it gets recycled quite often in the winds and brass). The cellos also open the second movement, but this time the theme is darker and more complex. The third movement, much like many of his violin and cello sonatas, departs completely from the somber tones of the earlier movements and juxtaposes a solo oboe line with cheerful pizzicato in the strings. The fourth movement combines the dark atmosphere of the second movement with the energy of the third.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #1


 

Hello all, 

We are continuing our series on the symphonic works of Johannes Brahms this week with his first symphony.

Brahms was a perfectionist. He would regularly destroy his compositions and left hundreds of them unpublished because he was not satisfied with them. The first symphony is no exception – it appears that he drafted it no less than ten different times over the course of eight years. Since it was his first symphony, Brahms felt an incredible amount of pressure to live up to the legacies of Haydn and Beethoven, the two composers to which he was most often compared.

It would be difficult to find a more dramatic and emotional theme then the opening of the first movement of the symphony. It is perpetually building, a gradual but never-ending ascent. The timpani and brass provide a sense of overwhelming power unmatched in any of his other symphonies. Listen for the way that Brahms contrasts this awe-inspiring explosion with the delicacy of the woodwinds when they show us the initial melody for the first time at around 2:05. You may also notice the significant tonal change to B major around the 9:57 mark. This is Brahms’ way of throwing the listener a curveball, but he mercifully incorporates elements of the main theme into the transition so that we don’t get too confused 🙂

Enjoy!

T  

Brahms Requiem

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the second movement of the German Requiem by Brahms. This week also marks the beginning of a new series on the music of Johannes Brahms. In particular, I want to focus on his larger works, such as the Requiem and his four symphonies.

The Requiem is based on the following set of verses:

Blessed are they that mourn

Behold, all flesh is as the grass

Lord, let me know mine end

How lovely are thy dwellings

Ye now have sorrow

For we have here no abiding city

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.

The verses above, which Brahms chose himself from both the Old and New Testaments, is clearly focused on themes of death and mourning. However, there is a consistent message of hope throughout the Requiem, and there is a widespread consensus that Brahms intended this piece to be a comfort for the living rather than a memorial for the dead.

It is likely that he wrote this piece in memory of both his mother and his dear friend Robert Schumann, both of whom died shortly before the composition of this piece. In fact, Brahms wrote the following words about the Requiem after its first performance:

“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you would know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”

The second movement, written in the especially dark key of B-flat minor, is the funeral march portion of the Requiem. While the later movements of the Requiem (which you are more than welcome to listen to at your leisure) depict the acceptance stage, this movement is fully saturated in the despair of loss. The tenor and bass parts are the foundation of the funeral march, and they repeatedly sing the words “Behold, all flesh is as the grass.” There is a persistence emphasis throughout this movement on the inevitability of our fate.

However, Brahms provides the listener with a brief respite during the middle of the movement, when he transitions to a lighter and more uplifting episode focused on the words “But yet the Lord’s word standeth forever.” These words and the brightness of this section are an excellent example of Brahms’ desire to, as noted above, comfort the living rather than mourn the dead.

The ending of this movement is particularly interesting. You will notice that it does not end in the somber darkness in which it begins. In many ways, this ending is the beginning of the transition from grief to acceptance. It is interesting to note that, despite the persistent focus on fate and grieving in the previous verses, the last words of this movement are simply “Eternal Joy.”

Enjoy!

T

Brahms on the Cello

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Sonata No. 1 for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras on the cello and Alexandre Tharaud on the piano.

If you have been with us for a while now, you have probably picked up on the importance of J.S. Bach in the world of classical music. Many consider him to be the father of Western music, and almost every single composer has written at least one composition in homage to him. Brahms is no exception. This cello sonata was written in honor of J.S. Bach, and we can see very tangible evidence of this in the fugue that Brahms includes in the first movement.

Brahms, however, also did his fair share of trailblazing. As an accomplished pianist, he was not a fan of the accompaniment role so often given to the piano in sonatas. He therefore wrote in the front of the manuscript that the piano “should be a partner – often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner – but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” He also titled the work, “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” which, by listing the piano first, implies that the cello is the accompanying voice. It is also telling that the sonata was written for a man named Joseph Gansbacher, an amateur cellist who reportedly lacked the ability to project an adequately robust sound into a concert hall. During the first rehearsal, with Brahms at the piano and Gansbacher at the cello, Gansbacher had to stop mid-phrase because the piano was so loud he couldn’t even hear himself play. When he complained to Brahms about this predicament, the composer growled, “Lucky for you,” and thundered on.

A few things for you to listen for:

  • The first movement is where you will hear the fugal structure that is reminiscent of Bach’s music. It can be a bit difficult to pick out the cello line at times because of the deep and dark colors that Brahms assigns it.
  • Listen for a Baroque dance in the second movement, another reference to Bach.
  • The fugue returns in the third movement, but this time it is assigned to both instruments. Again, however, Brahms makes sure that the piano is the dominant voice; in fact, it carries three out of the four voices in the fugue.