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8.553425 - BRAHMS, J.: 51 Exercises, WoO 6 (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Fifty-one Exercises, WoO 6


In 1853 Schumann contributed a famous last essay to the Leipzig Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. For his subject he took a musician, like Athena sprung "fully armed from the head of Zeus", for whom the future, he predicted, would hold wounds but also palms and laurels, "a chosen one", "a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch": "Johannes Brahms is his name, and he comes from Hamburg… Sitting at the piano, he began to reveal wonderful landscapes. We were drawn into more and more magical circles. The impression was heightened by his masterly playing, which transformed the piano into an orchestra of mourning or rejoicing voices."

To the critic Max Graf, recalling the 1890s of his youth, "strolling on the beautiful streets of Vienna, one encountered musical history in the making at every corner. There was modern history and there was old history, life and memories, both woven on the same loom by the same moving shuttle. One could meet Johannes Brahms any day on the Ringstrasse, a heavy, broad-shouldered, middle-class man, with the long beard of a professor. He would be walking slowly from his near-by apartment, with a somewhat rocking gait like an old Newfoundland dog, and was always ready to snap at friends and adversaries alike. Hans Richter, the famous Wagner conductor, would pass by - a great man, imposing as an old oak tree, with the big blue eyes of a German god. Among the malicious or flirtatious members of Vienna society, one might meet a strange man, who doffed his artist's hat with a flourish from his close-cropped old peasant head. He was dressed in a broad jacket made of thick rustic cloth, and in wide, wrinkled trousers that looked like the legs of an elephant. This was Anton Bruckner, the strange saint."

The 51 Exercises variously span the years from Schumann's recognition to Graf's reminiscence. They were first thought of around 1863 (between the Handel Variations, Op. 24, and the two books of Paganini Variations, Op. 35), but were only finally published in 1893 (along with the ten late piano pieces, Opp. 118 and 119). During the nineteenth century modern piano technique and resource was defined and transcendentalised in the studies of, principally, six composers: Cramer (84 Studio per il pianoforte, Opp. 39/40, 1804/10, valued and annotated by Beethoven); Clementi (Gradus ad Parnassum, 1817-26); Liszt (various, 1826-80, including the 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante and 6 Grandes études de Paganini); Chopin (24 Etudes, Opp. 10/25, 1829-36); Czerny (Complete Theoretical and Practical Pianoforte School, Op. 500, 1839); and Alkan (24 Etudes in all the Major and Minor Keys, Opp. 35/39, 1847/57). Brahms himself contributed five such types of study, WoO 1a/1, based on originals by Chopin, Weber and Bach (published 1869, 1879). His set of 51, however, belongs to another species of technical method altogether. Primarily an athletic training ground for finger equality through sequential mechanical rigour rather than free artistic application, its closest point of reference would seem to have been Beethoven's and Chopin's (manuscript) exercises for their pupils and Liszt's twelve books of Technical Studies (published 1886); together with Wieck's drill Studies, Tausig's Daily Exercises, Hanon's Virtuoso Pianist, Mason's Touch and Technic, and Bree's Groundwork of the Leschetizky Method.

Brahms's students from the early 1870s confirm that - like Beethoven, Chopin and his mentor Schumann - he relied on teaching (and himself playing) Bach's Forty-Eight and Clementi's Gradus to achieve and maintain a secure technical and musical foundation. Schumann's youngest daughter, Eugenie (Memoirs, 1925), says that she also learnt with him Beethoven's C minor Variations, a work comparably significant in its demarcated étude-like functionalism. "He had thought about … training and about technique in general much more than my mother [Clara] … He made me play a great many exercises, scales and arpeggios as a matter of course, and he gave special attention to the training of the thumb, which, as many will remember, was given a very important part in his own playing … In all exercises he made me play the non-accented notes very lightly … carefully executed, first slowly, then more rapidly, and at last prestissimo I found them extremely helpful for the strengthening, suppleness, and control of the fingers. I also played some of the difficult [51] Exercises … With regard to studies Brahms said: play easy ones, but play them as rapidly as possible … The melodic notes of figures he made me play legatissimo; the harmonic, however, for example the notes of broken chords, quite lightly… [Syncopations] had to be given their full value … I could never play them emphatically enough to please him … he made me see things which I had hitherto passed without noticing, and of which I never again lost sight". Another student, Florence May (who in 1905 published a two-volume biography of her master), remembered that "neatness and equality of finger were imperatively demanded by him, and in their utmost nicety and perfection, but as a preparation, not an end… Whatever the music I might be studying … he would never allow any kind of 'expression made easy'. He particularly disliked chords to be spread unless marked so by the composer…"

Challengingly fingered (including a repeated Chopinesque sliding from black to white notes, viz No. 25a-c), the 51 Exercises - with the printed alternatives effectively at least 88 - are designed to develop strength and independence as well as legato (joined) / staccato (detached) articulation in both hands. Predominantly tuneless and largely, but not exclusively, in the major key, with the option of transposition and physically shifting register repeats, they address numerous technical issues, many bearing directly on the unconventionalities, voicing characteristics and unpredictable hand positions of Brahms's own (distinctively innovative, traditionally independent) piano vocabulary. (a) Polyrhythms, (b) mixed scales / arpeggios, (c) thirds, (d) sixths, (e) broken octaves, (f) chromatics, (g) part playing, (h) skips, (i) intricate alignments, (j) contrary motion, (k) measured trills, (l) mobile hand movement (linear / chordal) around held pivot notes, (m) slurring, (n) note repetition, (o) contrary octaves, (p) triplified seconds and thirds, (q) contrasted melody / accompaniment patterns, (r) expansion and contraction, and (s) grace notes are among the problems progressively examined. Just occasionally, some of the routines bear an uncanny similarity to better-known Brahms. The brilliant contrary octaves of the A minor No. 29, for instance, clearly mirror Book II/11 of the Paganini Variations/Studies (1862-63); while the finger-tripping grace notes of No. 45 relate to the molto staccato e leggiero passage of the Second Ballade from Op. 10 (1854). "No longer exercises", Heinrich Neuhaus believed, "but almost intermezzi… full of delightful music".

© 1996 Ateş Orga

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