When I set out to compose a work for solo piano (which became Brahmsiana II) I was reminded of how composers in the past approached writing for the piano as it evolved as an instrument. Certainly, Mozart and Beethoven made the piano “speak,” but it wasn’t until the instrument became more powerful that composers began to make it “sing.” Chopin and Liszt are firmly in that group for example.
I believe the full range of the piano’s sonic qualities (lyric and power) was most explored by Brahms. In considering his total keyboard output, I was ultimately drawn to the masterpieces of his late opuses. From Op. 79 to Op. 119, Brahms exploited every possible color, melodic potential, and sonority that the more sophisticated piano of his time had. Therefore, the intermezzi of Op. 117 became my model.
There are no direct musical quotes from Op. 117 in my work. Rather, I looked at their form and textures, rhythms, and their juxtaposition of the lyrical and the forceful. Multi-layered voices, strong bass lines, and vertical harmonies dominate, just as they do in the three intermezzi of Brahms. However, the compositional material is all original.
This is the second major work of mine inspired by Brahms. Brahmsiana I is a ballet score for orchestra commissioned by Atlanta Ballet. — Robert Chumbley
Echoes of Youth was commissioned by Steven Masi as a companion piece to Johannes Brahms’s Sechs Klavierstück, Op. 118. These pieces show Brahms at his most personal and introspective—at times extremely tender, while other times brooding or even grim. An overarching theme in Op. 118 (as well as Op. 116, 117, and 119) is a feeling of nostalgia and wistful remembrances of a time come and gone.
I wanted my piece to have a similar nostalgic quality, as an homage to Brahms and also to pay tribute to the musical world he left at the time of his death in 1897. There are slight hints at works of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Schoenberg—composers whom Brahms was aware of and who made him question his position in music history.
The two intermezzi have titles referring to Brahms’s own motto “frei aber froh” (free but happy) which was a reference to his friend Joseph Joachim, whose self-proclaimed motto was “frei aber einsam” (free but lonely). In spite of Brahms’s claim, I have ended my piece with “frei aber einsam”—not a reflection on Joachim, but rather how I believe Brahms came to view himself, as a lifelong bachelor and one of the last “protectors” of tonality. — Jonathan Cziner
Late Brahms — What’s it all about?
Despite the lighthearted title of this program note, the subject is of a serious nature—at least insofar as trying to understand the emotional content of these most intimate works. The four works that constitute late Brahms (Opp. 116 through 119) are works of searing intensity and intimacy. The question becomes one of trying to extrapolate the moods and feelings of the composer at that point in his life. By 1892 (the year of Op. 117’s composition), Brahms was resigned to his feelings for Clara Schumann being unrequited. Thus, the overwhelming mood of these three intermezzi (or interludes) is of resignation and acceptance of fate. Clearly, it is a sad acceptance; even the middle section of the third piece in C# Minor has a bittersweet feel in spite of that section being in A Major. It is difficult to detect any particular reason why these three works were published in one opus; one could assume that the publisher’s desire predominated. One has to, therefore, take each piece as a different, momentary expression of the composer’s mood at the time he put pen to paper, and any thematic or structural connection between these three works would be, at best, happenstance.
The six pieces that comprise the next Opus (118) have scarcely more connection than 117; the fact that the first two are in A Minor followed by A Major and the fourth and fifth in F Minor followed by F Major may again suggest a publisher’s decision rather than any particular input by the composer regarding the sequence. However, what one CAN deduce from these six pieces are moments of less melancholy and even a bit of fiery defiance (e.g. the G Minor Ballade or the middle section of the Eb Minor Intermezzo). The Brahmsian mood of 1893 (the year of Op. 118’s composition) is definitely more positive than the very dark Op. 117; the sunny A Major (No. 2) and the passionately elegant Romance (No. 5) are clear indications of that. The dark, almost funereal No. 6 in Eb Minor stands out as an example (to this writer) of one of the most sad, negative, and tragic utterances in all of 19th-century literature for the piano. Even the aforementioned middle section, with its defiant character that gets overwhelmed at its conclusion by the prevailing mood of the piece, does little to dispel the tragedy. From the standpoint of its mood, it would not have been surprising if this had been the final work of Brahms; that it isn’t speaks to the strength of both his and humanity’s character. — Joseph Patrych
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