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8.554119 - BRAHMS, J.: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Matthies, Köhn)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Four Hand Piano Music, Volume 6


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, as a pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped his family by playing the piano in dockside taverns.


In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Remenyi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.


In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Dusseldorf, the first and last official appointment of his career. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.


Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg, but this ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, interntittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to

fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.


The first of Brahms's symphonies was slow in gestation. Overawed by the example of Beethoven and the manifold expectations of his friends, and unresponsive to their anxious queries, he eventually completed his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68 in the summer of 1876. In early October he played the work over to Clara Schumann, who expressed in her diary her initial disappointment, a judgement she later changed. The new symphony was given its first performance on 4th November in Carlsruhe under the direction of Otto Dessoff and further performances were given in the following weeks. The work was published by Simrock, with a four-hand piano arrangement made by the composer, welcomed by supporters of the composer as Beethoven's Tenth. The piano arrangement captures much of the massive grandeur of the first movement, with its slow introduction and subsequent sonata-allegro, in which the exposition is repeated before the exploration of the material in a central development and its recapitulation in all its magnificence. The lyricism of the E major Andante sostenuto is captured in the piano transcription with its characteristic autumnal shades of harmonic colouring, leading to the A flat major Allegretto, a gentler scherzo with a relatively turbulent, modulating B major trio. The last movement has a C minor slow introduction, followed by the well-known principal theme in C major, the resemblance of which to the principal theme of the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.9 was immediately apparent even to the less perceptive of Brahm's contemporaries.


The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 aroused the patriotic instincts of Brahms, who had a high opinion of Bismarck and his aspirations. His contribution to the conflict was the Triumphlied, the first part of which was performed at Bremen Cathedral in Apri11871, together with the German Requiem, to honour those killed in the war. Completed in the summer of that year, the work was dedicated to the King of Prussia, the new German Emperor, and first performed under Hermann Levi at Carlsruhe. Scored for eight-part chorus, baritone solo and orchestra, the Triumphlied sets verses taken from the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Revelations and is overtly Handelian in ancestry, with a debt to the latter's Dettingen Te Deum, celebrating an earlier victory against France. The first of the three interlinked sections sets an Alleluia of praise to God, omitting more defamatory parts of the chosen text, which Brahms still had in mind. The movement, which uses elements of the Prussian national anthem, a version of God save the Queen, in the apt key of D major, provides antiphonal choruses and appropriate contrapuntal writing. The G major second movement opens with Baroque dotted rhythms that Schumann had once identified with the great Cathedral of Cologne. There is a livelier section of D major celebration, before a relaxation into a passage that draws on the well-known chorale Nun danket (Now thank we all our God). The energetic third movement introduces a baritone soloist, in its full version, to the words Und ich sahe den Himmel aufgethan (And I saw the Heavens open), revealing the apparition of the pale horse and its rider. The work ends in triumphant Baroque counterpoint, justifying in a measure Clara Schumann's immediate reaction to the first performance, when she recorded the work in her diary as the grandest piece of church music since Bach.


Keith Anderson



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