|About this Recording
8.550824 - BRAHMS: Organ Works (Complete)
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Complete Organ Works
Most listeners do not think of Johannes Brahms (1833- 1897) as a composer of organ music, for the works that first come to mind are the symphonies, concertos, piano pieces, songs, and chamber music - or perhaps the German Requiem. Yet, the very last compositions from the pen of Brahms were a set of chorale preludes for organ, published posthumously in 1902. Curiously enough, his only previous compositions for this instrument originated much earlier.
In the 1850s, when Brahms was still a young pianist and composer, he mentioned his aspirations to become an "organ virtuoso". Although he found the complex instrument more difficult to master than he had anticipated, he began to compose for it in earnest. Among his first attempts were two preludes and fugues, a conscious emulation of a form developed in the Baroque era but filtered through Brahms's own harmonic language. He regarded both works as novice projects not worthy of publication and apparently thought that the manuscripts had been destroyed. They were discovered much later, however, and published in 1927, thirty years after his death.
The Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, the second and more mature of the two, was written in 1857. The flamboyant prelude recalls the rhapsodic style of praeludia and toccatas by earlier German composers like Buxtehude or even the young J. S. Bach. Brahms was an avid student of pre-19th-century music, and it is by no means coincidental that he often chose archaic musical forms for his own writing.
Counterpoint, especially canon and fugue, absorbed the attention of Brahms during this period in particular. The first version of his Fugue in A flat minor, completed in 1856, was later revised and published in 1864 (as a supplement to the journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung). The accompanying prelude in this rarely used key has been lost - if indeed it was ever completed - but the quiet fugue, marked langsam, stands on its own as a masterfully crafted and deeply felt creation. Brahms's contrapuntal ingenuity is revealed even from the outset, as the highly expressive main subject is answered by its own inversion.
After the 1850s Brahms abandoned composition for the organ, other than revision of older pieces for publication, but toward the end of his life and just before the impending death of his close friend Clara Schumann, Brahms once again turned his attention to the organ. The resulting Eleven Chorale Preludes, finished in May and June of 1896, are a high point in German Romantic organ literature. Most are rather short and similar in format to pieces in the Orgelbüchlein, J. S. Bach's cycle of 45 chorale preludes for the liturgical year; that is, the phrases of the chorale melody, plain or embellished, are not separated by long interludes.
A notable exception opens Brahms's set, however. Mein Jesu, derdu mich, a more extended treatment cast in the Baroque mold of the Pachelbel-style chorale prelude, adumbrates each phrase of the hymn tune with fugal imitation of a subject derived from that phrase. Brahms was particularly fond of the chorales O Welt, ich muss dich lassen and Herzlich tut mich verlangen, and he provided two contrasting settings of each. Like Herzliebster Jesu and Herzlich tut mich erfreuen, their texts are concerned with final matters: the passion of Jesus Christ, death, and the afterlife. Just beyond the midpoint of the collection comes O Gott, du frommer Gott, a powerful work in which the tune sounds mezza voce from a subsidiary manual until the final phrase. Balancing the ponderous textures that characterize most of these preludes are three somewhat more subdued ones without pedal: O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen, yet another reflection on death and eternity; the lovely communion hymn Schmacke dich, o liebe Seele, and the gentle Christmas tune Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen.
In 1857, years before he was to focus on things eternal in several of his Eleven Chorale Preludes, Brahms had already written a beautiful Chorale Prelude on O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid. A Fugue based on this chorale tune was appended sometime later, and a revised version of the chorale prelude followed by the fugue was published in 1882, once again as a musical supplement to a periodical, Musikalisches Wochenblatt. The subject of the fugue is derived from the hymn tune, while the unadorned chorale appears in long notes in the pedal. Like the Fugue in A flat minor, it is slow, marked adagio, and the answer to the subject is similarly inverted.
The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, ostensibly Brahms's first essay in organ composition, was sent to Clara Schumann as a gift to celebrate his own birthday in 1856. What it lacks in maturity and polish, it more than makes up for in youthful energy and impetuosity, but not at the expense of experimentation with time-honoured contrapuntal devices. More specifically, the fugue subject - already foreshadowed in the pedal line of the brief prelude - appears also in inversion, just preceding still another transformation by augmentation. As in many of Bach's early preludes and fugues, Brahms's counterpoint dissolves toward the end into the free style of the prelude, and the final statement of the subject is nearly buried under a furious flurry of notes.
1994 Robert Parkins
Close the window