A bit of Brahms

This is the first, but in all likelihood not the last, post I’ll make about a piece of music by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who has long been a favorite of mine.

A young Johannes Brahms
A young Johannes Brahms

Late in his life, Brahms composed 4 sets of pieces (Op. 116-119) for solo piano.  In the liner notes for a recording he did of Op. 117, 118 and 119, the Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda referred to them as “late autumn harvest fruits” and goes on to note that “with these last collections…., Brahms takes leave of pianistic composition, and at the same time attains a pinnacle.  His creative energy is undiminished.”

Op. 118, No. 2, the Intermezzo in A major, is my favorite among these pieces; I find it almost unbearably beautiful in places…a string of memorable moments placed end to end.

The page of music below starts 1:07 into the recording provided, which is by the wonderful Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu.

My moment begins at 1:14, at the forte (red rectangle) in the first line.  This is followed first by a descending scale in the right hand (orange bar), then by another descending scale in the right hand (blue bar), but this time in a minor key, to be played calando, i.e., more slowly and quietly.  At 1:28 there is silence, and then, at 1:29, we hear the right hand play G#-A-F# (yellow box)…what Lupu does with these notes, to me, is nothing short of exquisite: I hear sweetness, and tenderness, but also a sense of sadness and rue.  This is what I aim for when I play this piece; I don’t think I’ve accomplished it yet, but boy is it something to strive for.

Brahms moment

Johannes Brahms in the last year of his life.
Johannes Brahms in the last year of his life: one of the more impressive beards–not to mention gorgeous pairs of eyes–in the classical music pantheon.

Trivia tidbit for the medically inclined: Brahms was very good friends with Theodor Billroth (1829-1894), the pioneering abdominal surgeon. Billroth played both piano and violin quite proficiently and participated in rehearsals of many of Brahms’ chamber music pieces before they were performed publicly. Brahms often sought Billroth’s opinions on his compositions before publication and even dedicated the two string quartets of Opus 51 to Billroth.

4 comments

  • Thank you. How good to listen to this piece, The appeal of Brahms eluded me for much of my life. It’s not that I disliked him, but somehow I didn’t connect to him (though I always loved the violin concerto and the Academic Festival Overture). Several years ago, though, some of the late piano pieces were included in a recital I attended, and I was so taken by them that I asked a Brahmsian friend to recommend a recording of the pieces. He said, immediately, that Radu Lupu was the man. So I bought Lupu’s cd of the late piano pieces and it’s given me such pleasure. I am intrigued by how, as one gets older, one can “get” pieces of music, or bodies of music by certain composers which previously left one cold or indifferent. Of course, it’s not just music that this applies to. I’d tried, and failed, several times, to appreciate the writing of Somerset Maugham, for example, but it is only now, in middle age that I can be grabbed, and moved, by his stories. It’s very encouraging, I think, that, as the years pass, we can revisit things and discover their appeal. A warning perhaps, that one shouldn’t dismiss works of art casually as being “not for me”. The best thing is to set them aside for a time. There might well come the day when they will start to mean something.

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    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree with you more re: ‘getting’ pieces of music as one gets older. And that’s true not only at the listening end, but at the playing end as well. Since returning to the piano in middle age, particularly when revisiting some pieces I played when I was younger, I’ve realized that, well…for lack of a better way to put it…that I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing, expressively. I think I played well as my younger self, but I hadn’t experienced enough of the ups and downs of life to transmit any those emotions truthfully, and in a meaningful way, to the music. Radu Lupu is such an inspiring artist. I’ve had the privilege of seeing him perform twice, most recently two months ago in solo recital.

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      • I envy you your piano playing. I’ve dabbled with various instruments over the years but a lack, both of basic ability, and – perhaps more – proper application, means that I’ve remained a dabbler. I’d be interested to hear of any more insights you gain from revisiting pieces. It’s a fascinating topic. A few weeks ago I attended a talk given by Alfred Brendel at the Royal Academy of Music here in London (he was on the platform with the wonderful Joanna MacGregor). Brendel is no fan his own earlier recordings (which to us mere mortals are models of refined technique and penetration). Alas, they covered a great deal of territory that evening, so there wasn’t time for him to go into details of why later recordings of particular works are to be preferred to earlier ones … but you can’t have everything.

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  • Towards the end, Papa Brahms looked more than a little like Papa Hemingway, wouldn’t you say?

    Please pardon a less-than-thoughtful comment!

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