Johannes Brahms

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Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833 in Hamburg - April 3, 1897 in Vienna) was a German composer, pianist, and conductor. He composed orchestral, chamber, piano and choral music and songs, but no operas. He is widely considered as one of the most influential and important composers of Western classical music.

Life

His father was a musician and double-bass player. His son Johannes had an older sister, Elise, and a younger brother, Friedrich. He had a gift for music and taught himself violin, cello and French horn. His piano tutor from age seven was Otto Cossel and he studied composition and piano under Eduard Marxsen from age 13, dedicating his second piano concerto to Marxsen, his "dear friend and teacher" in 1882.

He settled in Vienna.

Symphonies

His symphonies were, in a way, 'summer symphonies' since he wrote most or parts of them during his summer trips on Rügen 1876 (1st symphony), 1877 at the Wörthersee (2nd symphony), in Wiesbaden in 1883 (3rd symphony), and 1884 and 1885 in Mürzzuschlag (4th symphony).

Brahms was an architect among symphony composers. He strictly adhered to some formal conventions while modifying some others, so that, properly understood, the constructive element is more typical of his symphonies than the melodious element. This is perhaps the main reason why his symphonies seem to be very 'German' works: quite the reverse of being easily accessible, they are very serious, grave, mostly gloomy, and metaphysically weighty.

It is sometimes said that the middle movements of all of his symphonies are somewhat not equal to the first and last movements: this is true as far as the chamber music-like character and the lessened dynamics is concerned. Brahms obviously liked to give such a stark contrast between the movements by which the expression of each of them could be very much intensified. Though the Brahms specialist Siegfried Kross called him the "unromantic romantic"[1] it seems more appropriate to call him 'the classical romantic.'

First Symphony

Second Symphony

Third Symphony

Brahms admitted that he was "shy" about his works.[2] This is especially true of his third symphony: we know almost nothing of its origins. The only extant information concerns the completion of the work in 1883 during a summer trip to the spa town of Wiesbaden.

The third symphony is in some ways unique in the symphony literature, at least compared to those written before. Especially remarkable are the third movement, usually a scherzo, with its beautiful, but very sad melody and, even more so, the quiet, un-triumphal endings of all four movements. The main theme of the third movement resembles "a slow melancholic waltz, a valse triste, whose grievous tone in some passages reminds the listener of Tchaikovsky."[3] It is also the third movement which exemplifies the Brahmsian changing of instrumentation, the seizing of the main theme by different groups of instruments. Though the first and fourth movements are the conflict-ridden ones, all of the movements end in a dreamy, resignative tone.

The symphony seems to suggest that life cannot resolve the conflicts, or only by the passing of time. The work as a whole strongly bears the mark of 'being finished', it is an Abschiedssymphonie, a 'farewell-symphony': probably Brahms did not know himself that he would write another - and final - symphony. What Brahms once humorously said about his second symphony is absolutely true of his third: that it could be published with a mourning border.

Fourth Symphony

To his old friend, Clara Schumann, Brahms wrote that he had "labored long and hard" at the fourth symphony.[4]

Written between 1884 and 1885, the Symphony #4 in E Minor, Op. 98, is divided, like his other three symphonies, into four distinct movements. The opening movement (Allegro non troppo, in 4/4 time and in E minor) is in sonata form, which was becoming quite an obsolete musical structure at the time of composition. The opening, rhythmic melody in the violins has been greatly analyzed for its inventive construction: the initial eight notes contain a complete E minor harmonic scale; in addition, when divided into two four-note phrases, create a descending sequence; each phrase can be divided further into two note motives, where the first is a descending third, and the second its inversion, an ascending sixth. Brahms develops this thematic and rhythmic idea throughout the entire movement. The second, dancelike theme is introduced in the horns after a transition to the key of B Minor. It carries typical Brahmsian features like alternating triplet and duplet rhythms, extended pedal points, and motivic construction. The developmental section begins in exactly the same manner as the movement as a whole, a nod to the tradition of repeating the opening section of a sonata-form movement, but quickly moves into more exotic territory and more distant tonalities. Brahms continues developing his material right through a recapitulation, right up until the movement's climactic end.

The second movement (Andante Moderato, 3/4, E Major) begins with a horn melody in the Phrygian mode which Brahms develops into a warm, melodic sonata-form movement.

The third movement (Allegro giocoso, 2/4, C major) is an innovative scherzo-like movement, so well received at the final performance during Brahms' lifetime that the final movement had to be begun immediately afterwards to cut off the standing ovation. There is a brief, slower "trio" section, very short in comparison to the whole of the movement (usually the trio of a scherzo or a minuet is of similar length to the originating piece). The third movement makes use of the triangle, which Brahms had never used before and would never use afterwards.

The finale (Allegro energico e passionato, 3/4, E Minor) is a short theme with a set of more than thirty variations. The eight-note theme is lifted from the chaconne of Bach's cantata #150 ("Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich") and the movement seems to draw its inspiration from Bach's Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor (BWV 1004) and from Beethoven's "32 Variations in C Minor" (WoO 80). The structure of the movement has elements of sonata form, and of the Baroque continuous-variation forms of the Passacaglia and the Chaconne - especially the latter, where the distinctive rhythm stressing the second beat of the bar is prevalent. The movement is in E Minor with a central interlude in E Major in 3/2. The coda (più allegro) is grand and tragic, without diverting to the major mode as had been done in Brahms first symphony and with many symphonies (and pieces of music in general) in minor keys.

Notes

  1. Siegfried Kross, "Brahms – der unromantische Romantiker," Brahms-Studien 1 (1974):25-43.
  2. Brahms to Elisabeth von Hengstenberg, Vienna, October 10, 1885.
  3. Wolfgang Dömling, ""Tönend bewegte Formen": III. Symphonie F-Dur, op. 90," in Johannes Brahms: Das Symphonische Werk, 230-39, here 235.
  4. Brahms to Clara Schumann, Meiningen, at the end of October 1885.