‘Many new and remarkable talents have made their appearance, and a fresh musical power seemed about to reveal itself among the many aspiring artists of the day, even though their compositions were known only to the few. I thought to follow with interest the pathway of these elect; there would, there must, after such promise, suddenly appear one who should utter the highest ideal expression of his time, who should claim the Mastership by no gradual development, but burst upon us fully equipped, as Minerva sprang from the brain of Jupiter. And he has come, this chosen youth, over whose cradle the Graces and Heroes seem to have kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms.’
- Robert Schumann, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Oct. 28, 1853
The mighty and majestic five-movement Piano Sonata op. 5, the last of Brahms’ efforts in Sonata form for solo piano, was first performed in the Autumn of 1853 at the Düsseldorf house of Robert and Clara Schumann.
The first movement is an incredible example of musical cohesion and concentration of material. The main themes are all closely related to and unified by the opening statement, which comes back repeatedly throughout the movement.
In the second movement all the tension leaves space to a serene love duet. Brahms himself wanted to emphasize this emotions quoting a verse by Sternau;
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint Twilight falls, the moonlight shines,
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint Two hearts are united in love,
Und halten sich selig umfangen and keep themselves in bliss enclosed
The central movement, Scherzo, has the powerful rhythms of a Hungarian dance followed by a wistful Trio, which eventually grows and leads into the initial recapitulative dance.
The fourth movement uses the main thematic material of the second, and is subtitled Rückblick (Retrospect); the tranquil flowing melodic line as it was in the Andante is transformed into a dark funeral march, contorting the memory of a beautiful love into a cold and aseptic new reality. The marking attacca links to the last movement, composed in free Rondo form. In my personal view it works as a grand Rückblick of the whole Sonata, where all the characteristics of every previous movement are unified to achieve the final and victorious climax.
The Rhapsodies op. 79 were written in 1879 and are the last works for piano until the sets op. 116, 117, 118 and 119, composed some fourteen years later. The first Rhapsody has great mood swings, with its tumultuous opening, the mysterious second subject and the marvelous Trio, so simple and tuneful that it may disguise the listener of its uneven phrasing and rich voicing. The contrast is therefore immense with the Second Rhapsody. Much less ‘rhapsodic’ and with a greater narrative intention, making it similar to a Ballade, this piece can be easily explained with the words of Clara Schumann: ‘[The second Rhapsody op. 79] has two marked themes and intervening episodes connecting them with the logical precision for which Brahms is celebrated’.
In 1893 Brahms published his last compositions for piano, the Klavierstücke op. 119; they can be considered his musical and pianistic testament, his last thoughts, the will of a man who had brought forth the ideals of tradition and beauty from such predecessors as Beethoven and Schumann. This statement should not make one believe Brahms never dared to explore new horizons or write music that was ahead of his time, as the first Intermezzo of the op. 119 shows; in the outer sections, descending groups of thirds create an intense harmonic tension and ambiguity that can be considered an early attempt at polytonality. The second Intermezzo has a haunting rhythmical figuration, almost as if he intended to put his heartbeat into music, which is smoothed in the middle section to create a gentle and charming Viennese waltz. The last of the Intermezzos brings an oasis of serenity and humor before the final Rhapsody that concludes the set. Brahms seems to take inspiration from his mentor, creating a heroic atmosphere remindful of Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündler’ as final statement prior to leaving his beloved instrument forever.
Brahms’ output for piano had been a journey of constant growth, from an unusually talented and gifted young man to the culmination as one of the greatest and sincerest musicians the history of music has known. We could say, using words borrowed from the visual Arts, that he began with the creation of large-scale canvas or frescos and morphed into cathartic miniatures conveying the deepest human emotions.
Notes by M.Fatichenti