Johannes Brahms ranks as the foremost successor of Beethoven in orchestral and chamber music. Today he is thought of as being a truly classic composer in the late romantic age because of his inclination to impose a traditional sense of order and form on his music. For this reason he has emerged as the true upholder of the Viennese Classic tradition established by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Brahms' fame was established in 1853 through an essay written by Robert Schumann, "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths). It became solidified in public opinion in 1868 after the triumphal premier of his German Requiem. Unfortunately for Brahms, the esteem he enjoyed at this time was due as much to his association with a conservative group of "serious minded musicians" who polemicized against the excesses of the "New German School," represented most notably by Richard Wagner. Against his will, Brahms was promoted as the symbol of traditional Germanic musical values in opposition to the radicalism of Wagner and Liszt.
Johannes was the second child of a double bass player in the Hamburg City Orchestra. He showed signs of being a child prodigy as a pianist and composer. In 1846 he began his education in music theory and soon after became the pianist, composer and arranger for the Alster Pavilion Orchestra, a small chamber orchestra in Hamburg. In 1848 he made his debut as a solo pianist and in 1853 met Robert and Clara Schumann, beginning a romantic infatuation with Clara that lasted ten years.
In 1857 Brahms and his friend, the great violinist Joachim, declared their opposition to the policies, but not necessarily the aesthetics, of the New German School. This group of musicians, founded around the composer Franz Liszt and later Richard Wagner, controlled much of the performance, distribution and publication of music in Germany. Brahms became recognized as the most creative and able opponent of the New German School and, thus, a composer to be feared and ostracized. For the next five years Brahms encountered increasing difficulty getting his works performed and published.
An example of the type of difficulties Brahms dealt with can be found in the first performances of his D Minor Piano concerto, Op. 15, which he began in 1854 and completed in 1858. The work was premiered in Hanover in January 1859 and was critically acclaimed. However, before another performance could be mounted his enemies stirred up public opinion against the piece. A second performance in Leipzig was a dismal failure, forcing Brahms to recognize that by remaining outside the musical establishment, he jeopardized his artistic career. Later in 1859 Brahms retreated somewhat from public controversy, settling in Hamburg and forming a women's chorus, for which he arranged folksongs and composed many original compositions.
In 1862 Brahms moved to Vienna. Through introductions provided by Clara Schumann, Brahms was soon accepted into artistic circles, where he and his music were greeted with relative enthusiasm. In 1863 Brahms was elected to the position of Director of the Vienna Singakademie, a position that lasted only one year, but established Brahms as a creative force in Vienna. To raise funds for the group Brahms performed concerts of his own new compositions such as the April 1863 concert in which choral works, the B-flat Sextet and the Sonata for Two Pianos (the first version of the F Minor Quintet) were performed. In 1869 Wagner came to Vienna and viciously attacked Brahms in a periodical article, "Ueber das Dirigieren," that nearly provoked a duel.
For the next few years Brahms toured extensively performing his own works. He continued to seek an official appointment as director of an orchestra or professor at a conservatory. He believed that such an appointment was the basic condition for a stable middle class life that included a family. None came, however, until 1872 when he was named director of the Vienna Gesellschafts-Konzerte, a prestigious orchestra and chorus in Vienna. Brahms used this position to introduce many of his own compositions together with works by Bach and Handel. But, while Brahms' reputation as a composer was growing, his limitations as a conductor were becoming more apparent. In 1875 he resigned this position as the formal position of conductor was becoming more professionalized.
During these years Brahms was hailed as a patriot because of the growing public appreciation for his German Requiem and other works such as his "patriotic" songs of 1861, Op. 41, and the Triumphlied, Op. 55, written in commemoration of the Franco-Prussian War. In 1873 Brahms completed his most popular work to date, Variations On a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56. From this point on, Brahms was secure financially and his artistic success was assured.
Brahms left the world extraordinary choral music, both a cappella works and large works for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra such as the Requiem. He also composed the most significant repertory of Lieder (art songs) for solo voice and small solo ensemble and piano of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. But, possibly due to his difficulties with Wagner, he never composed an opera.
His solo piano music that includes the three early piano sonatas, the Waltzes, the two sets of Pagannini Variations and the numerous rhapsodies, intermezzos, ballades, capriccios, romances and fantasias form one of the most extensive repertories of piano music that continues to be performed today.
Brahms' lasting fame and reputation, however, is due to his chamber music, both with and without piano, and his orchestral music. At least a half dozen of Brahms' chamber works are considered among the masterpieces of European music literature. These include the Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 34 (1864), the Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, Op. 40 (1865), the Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 101 (1886), the String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111 (1890) and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891). In addition, his three sonatas for violin and piano, two sonatas for cello and piano and two sonatas for clarinet and piano contain some of Brahms' most beautiful melodic writing, as well as sensitive use of colorful harmonies. The clarinet sonatas, dating from the very end of Brahms' life offer exquisite autumnal tonal colors and are among his most mature compositions.
Brahms wrote most of his compositions for orchestra later in life. These include four symphonies, two serenades for orchestra, four concertos (two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello), two concert overtures, a set of Hungarian Dances and the Haydn Variations. He composed most of these after the early 1870s in Vienna, but none during his last creative period in the later 1880s and early 1890s, when he returned to the composition of chamber music, song and small piano pieces. Although he revered the symphony and had paid great attention to the problems of organizing symphonic works, he seems to have felt himself inadequate to undertake such works. In order to prepare for this task he first turned to composing a concerto, two serenades and variations for orchestra, all formal designs he considered relatively simple. He even wrote his First Symphony as a sonata for two pianos first before recasting it as a symphony.
Brahms worked for many years on Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. Sketches for the Sonata for Two Pianos appeared well before 1862 and the Sonata was completed in 1864. During the years 1874-1876 Brahms took up the idea again and converted it into a symphony. The work owes a huge debt to Beethoven. No symphonic work since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is crafted with such intricate musical elaboration and such depth of intensity. In addition, both works share a sense of human pain, overcome by the triumph of the human spirit and creativity. Beginning with moods of dark struggle, both works end in triumphal light and brilliance. Also, as in many of Beethoven's works, the first movement is dominated by a motiveA fragment of a melody, manipulated by composers in many ways to achieve symmetry and unity. that supplies the basic connecting tissue to the piece and its consistency, while serving as its main melodic material. After two lighter, lyrical middle movements the last movement begins with darkness. A horn solo breaks the gloom and suddenly signals the salvation of the soul before the hymn-like Allegro ends the work in victory over pain and suffering.
Brahms conceived the last movement as a chaconne,A musical form, in which a short bass line (ground bass in the baroque era) repeats, allowing other voices to make extensive variations. a complex set of variations, frequently used in Baroque Era music. The movement is based on an eight-bar theme, which is repeated thirty-one times. There is no harmonic modulation, yet the movement flows fluidly. Each variation is interlaced with its surrounding variations. The entire texture is overlaid with a second series of variations after a return of the theme near the middle of the movement. Despite the extreme complexity of the construction, the movement still flows freely. Brahms' genius is shown in the fact that a listener's attention is drawn to the beauty of the sound, not to the technical underpinnings of the movement.
As in all of Brahms' work technical mastery in the Fourth Symphony never overshadows aesthetic beauty. One simply serves the other. But, it is not only Brahms' extraordinary compositional technique that serves as the foundation of his work, it is also his conception of how music should be put together. In the Romantic Age melody, harmonic color and timbre that freely express emotion dominate musical thought. Form becomes essentially a platform on which these elements are displayed. For Brahms, though, the idea of developing far-reaching conclusions from a kernel of basic material was central to his compositional process. Brahms uses motivic and thematic manipulation to underlie all sections of his formal designs in a similar, but even more rigorous way to what Beethoven did in his last works. He also discovered how to create extended compositions, to present motivic and melodic material within a movement in a broad and understandable way without the aid of periodic structure and traditional cadential harmony.The arrival points in music. Cadences end sections of music with a feeling of conclusiveness. In these ways Brahms demonstrated the vitality of formal music design and earned the label, "most classic composer in the Romantic Age."
Some of Brahm's best known compositions include:
Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
Symphony #2 in D major, Op. 73
Symphony #3 in F major, Op. 90
Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83 Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45
String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26
Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 88
Seven Fantasias for piano, Op. 116
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel for piano, Op. 24
Brahms also composed a great number of oustanding art songs and choral works.
by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) Translation from French by Roger Fry (1866-1934)
These nymphs I would perpetuate.
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?
My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing
In many a subtle branch, which, left the true
Wood itself, proves, alas! that all alone I gave
Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.
Let me reflect
. . .if the girls of which you tell
Figure a wish of your fabulous senses!
Faun, the illusion escapes from the blue eyes
And cold, like a spring in tears, of the chaster one:
But, the other, all sighs, do you say she contrasts
Like a breeze of hot day in your fleece!
But no! through the still, weary faintness
Choking with heat the fresh morn if it strives,
No water murmurs but what my flute pours
On the chord sprinkled thicket; and the sole wind
Prompt to exhale from my two pipes, before
It scatters the sound in a waterless shower,
Is, on the horizon's unwrinkled space,
The visible serene artificial breath
Of inspiration, which regains the sky.
Oh you, Sicilian shores of a calm marsh
That more than the suns my vanity havocs,
Silent beneath the flowers of sparks, RELATE
"That here I was cutting the hollow reeds tamed
By talent, when on the dull gold of the distant
Verdures dedicating their vines to the springs,
There waves an animal whiteness at rest:
And that to the prelude where the pipes first stir
This flight of swans, no! Naiads, flies
Or plunges . . ."
Inert, all burns in the fierce hour
Nor marks by what art all at once bolted
Too much hymen desired by who seeks the Ia:
Then shall I awake to the primitive fervour,
Straight and alone, 'neath antique floods of light,
Lilies and one of you all through my ingenuousness.
As well as this sweet nothing their lips purr,
The kiss, which a hush assures of the perfid ones,
My breast, though proofless, still attests a bite
Mysterious, due to some august tooth;
But enough! for confidant such mystery chose
The great double reed which one plays 'neath the blue:
Which, the cheek's trouble turning to itself
Dreams, in a solo long, we might amuse
Surrounding beauties by confusions false
Between themselves and our credulous song;
And to make, just as high as love modulates,
Die out of the everyday dream of a back
Or a pure flank followed by my curtained eyes,
An empty, sonorous, monotonous line.
Try then, instrument of flights, oh malign
Syrinx, to reflower by the lakes where you wait for me!
I, proud of my rumour, for long I will talk
Of goddesses; and by picturings idolatrous,
From their shades unloose yet more of their girdles:
So when of grapes the clearness I've sucked,
To banish regret by my ruse disavowed,
Laughing, I lift the empty bunch to the sky,
Blowing into its luminous skins and athirst
To be drunk, till the evening I keep looking through.
Oh nymphs, we diverse MEMORIES refill.
"My eye, piercing the reeds, shot at each immortal
Neck, which drowned its burning in the wave
With a cry of rage to the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of their hair disappears
In the shimmer and shuddering, oh diamonds!
I run, when, there at my feet, enlaced. Lie (hurt by the languor they taste to be two)
Girls sleeping amid their own casual arms; them I seize, and not disentangling them, fly
To this thicket, hated by the frivilous shade,
Of roses drying up their scent in the sun
Where our delight may be like the day sun-consumed."
I adore it, the anger of virgins, the wild
Delight of the sacred nude burden which slips
To escape from my hot lips drinking, as lightning
Flashes! the secret terror of the flesh:
From the feet of the cruel one to the heart of the timid
Who together lose an innocence, humid
With wild tears or less sorrowful vapours.
"My crime is that I, gay at conquering the treacherous
Fears, the dishevelled tangle divided
Of kisses, the gods kept so well commingled;
For before I could stifle my fiery laughter
In the happy recesses of one (while I kept
With a finger alone, that her feathery whiteness
Should be dyed by her sister's kindling desire,
The younger one, naive and without a blush)
When from my arms, undone by vague failing,
This pities the sob wherewith I was still drunk."
Ah well, towards happiness others will lead me
With their tresses knotted to the horns of my brow:
You know, my passion, that purple and just ripe,
The pomegranates burst and murmur with bees;
And our blood, aflame for her who will take it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire.
At the hour when this wood's dyed with gold and with ashes
A festival glows in the leafage extinguished:
Etna! 'tis amid you, visited by Venus
On your lava fields placing her candid feet,
When a sad stillness thunders wherein the flame dies.
I hold the queen!
O penalty sure . . .
No, but the soul
Void of word and my body weighed down
Succumb in the end to midday's proud silence:
No more, I must sleep, forgetting the outrage,
On the thirsty sand lying, and as I delight
Open my mouth to wine's potent star!
Adieu, both! I shall see the shade you became.
Because there is another lecture devoted to opera of the 19th century, this lecture will focus on instrumental music and a non-operatic vocal music.
Vienna continued to be a center of symphonic composition and performance in the second half of the century. Johannes Brahms emerged as the most important composer of orchestral music in the 1870s. He composed four extraordinary symphonies that are in the repertory of every major orchestra and have been recorded hundreds of times. In addition to his symphonies, Brahms composed a number of other orchestral pieces, the most famous of which is his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which takes the theme and variation form to new heights. Brahms's adherence to traditional forms and his avoidance of programmatic associations account for his reputation as the most classic of the great Romantic composers. Brahms also composed two magnificent piano concertos and the best violin concerto of the period. He wrote no opera.
Brahms's first work to achieve wide recognition was his German Requiem, a large work for chorus, orchestra, and soloists that ranks as one of the great masterpieces of Romantic vocal music. Instead of using the traditional Latin liturgical text of the requiem mass, Brahms drew his text from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, choosing scripture associated with death and the life everlasting. There are seven movements, three of which feature the baritone and soprano soloist. Perhaps the best known and most often excerpted movement is the fourth, titled in English "How lovely is thy dwelling place," which can be sung as an anthem by a very good church choir. Choral societies and symphony choruses keep the Brahms Requiem in their repertoire, and there are many recordings available including the famous recording of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti.
A Bohemian contemporary of Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, also occupies a major place among symphonists of the period. He composed nine symphonies in addition to a great deal of music in other genres. His Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" is one of the most popular symphonic works ever composed and is often performed. There are many recordings available—some good ones on budget labels.
Another Viennese composer of note is Anton Bruckner, whose nine symphonies effectively incorporate the musical language of Richard Wagner into the structure of the symphonic form. All of the expressive and impressive gestures and devices associated with Wagnerian opera, such as rich chromatic harmony, wide dynamic range, and colorful orchestration, are found in Bruckner's symphonic music. His Symphony No. 7 is particularly engaging, and many listeners find the second theme in the first movement extremely attractive. Under Solti, the Chicago Symphony became famous for their interpretations of Bruckner, which provides a showcase for the brass section. Like Brahms, Bruckner composed no operas.
Another prolific symphonist associated with the Austrian capital in the late 19th century is Gustav Mahler. His nine symphonies also tend to feature the brass sections of the orchestra, and the CSO is still considered the finest exponent of them in the world. Mahler was also a great cosmopolitan conductor and was at one time music director of the New York Philharmonic. All of his symphonies are immensely popular and have been often recorded. The Eighth, also called the "Symphony of a Thousand" employs an oversize orchestra, orchestra, a giant chorus, children's choir, and soloists. The opening movement is based on the text Veni Creator Spiritus, a hymn from the liturgy of the feast of Pentecost. The last movement has a German text taken from the last five lines of Goethe's Faust. This symphony represents the apogee of German Romanticism. It is somewhat ironic that Mahler, a great opera conductor, composed no music for the stage.
The last composer in this Viennese line is the great Richard Strauss, also one of the eminent conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century. In contrast to Mahler, Strauss is better known for his operas and tone poems than for symphonies. His one-movement programmatic works like "Death and Transfiguration" and "Don Juan" bring the art of representational music to its highest peak, and his operas are considered among the greatest of the German repertoire. Salome, based on the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, scandalized polite society with its portrayals of debauchery, incest, and murder. Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, cloaks the decadent conventions of fin de siècle society in some of the most sumptuous music ever composed for the stage.
Besides his operas, Giuseppe Verdi composed some sacred music. His Four Sacred Pieces are extraordinarily sensitive a cappella settings of Latin texts associated with the Blessed Virgin. More often performed is his Requiem Mass, which makes use of the liturgical Latin text of the mass of the dead. Verdi's music is frankly operatic, calling for the same voices that would sing Il Trovatore or Aida and a large chorus and orchestra. The music is sublime.
In addition to Italian opera and German orchestral music, the student of Romantic music must know Russian music of the period. The greatest Russian composer is of course Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who excelled in every genre. His six symphonies are comparable in quality and profundity to those of the greatest German masters. Symphonies No. 4, 5, and 6 are undisputed masterpieces that are in the repertoire of every major orchestra. Perhaps no work captures the depths of melancholy as well as the Symphonie Pathetique (No. 6).
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Better known to the general public are Tchaikovsky's shorter orchestral works like the 1812 Overture and the Marche Slave, both of which make use of Russian hymns and folk tunes. His two piano concertos are perennial favorites with symphony patrons, and his Violin Concerto is a fine vehicle for the virtuoso. Fans of the Russian piano concerto also appreciate the four concertos composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff; the second is the most popular. Russian conservatories have always excelled at training great pianists, and the Tchaikovsky Competition remains among the most prestigious of all contests.
Russian composers, and particularly Tchaikovsky, excelled in composing music for the ballet. Works like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake became immensely popular all over Europe and remain so today. Symphonic suites drawn from these ballet scores are frequently heard at symphonic concerts and have been often recorded. Arranging favorite numbers from ballets, operas, and incidental music for the concert hall became a standard practice, and the composers themselves often made or approved the suites.
A very popular Russian symphonic suite in a programmatic vein is Scheherazade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This colorful four-movement work portrays characters and situations from 1001 Arabian Nights. If you like music with a story, then you will love this work. There are many good recordings available.
Russian composers from the 18th century on have excelled in creating music for worship. The liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church features large a cappella choirs often singing in 8-12 parts. The deep basses give the music a solemn mystical quality appropriate to the Orthodox style of worship. Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov set the texts of the Divine Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil (Vespers).
Chamber music continued to be composed and performed all over Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Most major composers essayed the string quartet, but combinations with winds and piano also became popular. Brahms's two piano trios and the Clarinet Quintet are especially fine. Brahms also excelled at writing solo sonatas for the piano, the cello and the violin. Once again, notice his predilection for classical forms.
Vocal chamber music is no less important, and composers from Brahms to Richard Strauss make important contributions to the recitalist's repertoire. The German Lieder of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler are also important in this genre. French composers like Faure and Debussy set great poetry of artists like Paul Verlaine to create a body of French art song known as melodie.
Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
This chapter concludes with a few words about French orchestral music. One of the most remarkable repertoires of orchestral music was created by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Like their counterparts in the visual arts, these Parisian composers sought to create a more subtle landscape by blurring lines and choosing softer colors. In music this is done by avoiding the "hard" chord progressions of functional harmony and the diatonic scales of common practice music. Debussy favored more exotic scales like the modal, the pentatonic and whole-tone scales. A master of orchestration, he also excelled at using timbre in subtle and often onomatopoetic ways. Listen to his Nuages (Clouds) from the Nocturnes or the tone poem called La Mer, which depicts the sea at different times of day. Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a wonderful impressionist score based on a poem by Mallarmé. You won't find a work called Symphony No 1 by an impressionist; they prefer representational titles. Their music is like film music for the cinema of your mind!
Debussy also excelled at evoking exotic locations. The Catalan composer Manuel de Falla called Debussy the greatest composer of Spanish orchestral music. Listen to Debussy's "Iberia" from Images! Another great Spanish piece by a French composer is Emmanuel Chabrier's España.
If you love the piano, listen to Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a marvelously evocative and impressionistic three-movement work for solo piano and orchestra Falla's ballet score called The Three-Cornered Hat, is a favorite in the concert hall and the theatre.