brahms in the autumn of his year

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) is, for me, a silvan composer—his music reminds me of a great rambling wood. We can rather clearly see the succession of the seasons in his work: from the fiercely beautiful, compelling springtime of early efforts like the piano sonatas and ballades, the first sets of songs, and chamber works such the first string sextet and the piano quartets, to the bursting summer of his symphonies, mature lieder, and Ein deutsches Requiem; and then there is the august and demure autumn of Brahms’ year, in which he composed chamber works, piano music, and a few last songs, all of an intense intimacy which represent to me the best that the Romantic period has to offer.

The particular works I have in mind are the trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 114; the clarinet quintet, Op. 115; the final collections of character pieces for the piano, Opp. 116-119; the two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op. 120, which to my mind are still the finest music written for that combination; and of course the Four Serious Songs of Op. 121 and the chorale preludes for organ of Op. 122. After these, Brahms was no more. In all this music we hear the life force waning, represented by long, sinuous melodic phrases and a preoccupation with harmonic progression by descending fifth. Brahms’ late interest in the clarinet came  from his association with Mühlfeld, a clarinetist from the orchestra at Meiningen whose playing inspired the master to continue composing during a period of creative vexation.

I believe it is in the Four Pieces for piano of Op. 119 (1893) that we can most directly experience this heaving forth of a great many leaves onto the musical landscape. We sense Brahms’ prescience of his own impending demise, but not through any sense of panic or terror in his voice, because there is none. Maybe there is some regret, some longing to revisit the springtime of youth once again, but we can find no internal disarray in this music. It reminds me of Bilbo Baggins at Rivendell, continually dozing by the fire as he looks over the journals of his great adventures while the younger generation prepares to quest on.  There is no rage against the dying of the light—only placid enjoyment of its last warmth and, one feels, some pleasure in solitary respite at the end of a full life.

Below, Hélene Grimaud interprets the Four Pieces, Op. 119. The first, an Intermezzo in B minor marked simply adagio, she takes at a much faster clip than most, perhaps at the expense of a little clarity in the texture and certainly contrary to the mood Brahms intended. Still, neither the gently sighing character of the first theme nor the gleam in the eye of the second are lost. Brahms wrote of this piece to Clara Schumann:

I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one . . .

The second, an Intermezzo in E minor, is probably my favorite of the set. This is a monothematic work, with a single melody transformed through a process manifesting several different moods. The opening harmony is so deliciously autumnal as to defy any further description.

No. 3, the Intermezzo in C, is the lightest in character. If we really are in a forest, surely this is the playing of the wood nymphs in the thick and colorful carpet of discarded foliage:

And the final piece, of a more substantial character than the others as its title Rhapsodie implies, seems a direct outpouring of all the emotion that has been coyly hinted at in the previous three. Here Brahms returns to the Hungarian dance rhythms and irregular phrases that periodically surface in all his works. The bravura of the opening contrasts sharply with the grazioso middle section, whose technical challenges Grimaud’s effortless rendering totally belie. Harmonically, the Rhapsodie can be thought of as a great transformation wherein E-flat major becomes E-flat minor. These are the last notes Brahms would publish for solo piano, and the departure is robust and confident enough:

FacebookDigg itGoogleTechnoratiYahoo! My WebRedditMySpaceTwitterdel.icio.usStumbleuponGmailWindows Live

Social Bookmarking Links


%d bloggers like this: