1890 was a significant year for the Blackfoot First Nation in Canada, as it marked the death of the well-known and respected leader Chief Crowfoot. Crowfoot was known for his bravery and diplomacy, and as a leader his accomplishments included making peace with the Cree nation and participating in treaty discussions with the Canadian government. The piece Crowfoot, by Canadian Métis composer Nicholas Howells, was commissioned by Milton Schlosser and premiered at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus in Camrose on September 21, 2011. Then, in October 2011, it had its international premiere at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, Japan. Much of the piece was inspired by the following passage, spoken by Chief Crowfoot near the end of his life:
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
The quotation resonated with both Schlosser and Howells, and its mystical and contemplative nature is translated into the music. At times, sections in the piece can even be found to suggest images in the quotation, such as the sound of a buffalo herd or the quickness of a moving shadow. Howells also used the process of creating the piece as a way to explore and come to terms with his Métis heritage, which is reflected in the music’s alternating sections of struggle and serenity. The piece also requires the pianist to recite the famous quotation of Crowfoot in the Hobbema dialect of Plains Cree:
tâpiskôc wâsaskocêwisis tipiskâk.
tâpiskôc paskwâwi-mostos yêhêwin pipohki.
tâpiskôc cikâscêsinis pâ-pimipâhtâht maskosihk êkosi katê-wanihot pahkisimowihk.
Crowfoot blends a variety of classical and contemporary techniques and requires the pianist to play, sing, speak, and beat a foot drum. In accordance with Aboriginal ideas of community music making, it also requires the audience members to participate by shuffling their feet to simulate the sound of a buffalo herd. However, despite the fact that Howells uses non-traditional techniques, his writing never loses its sense of pianism. In this way, he introduces a contemporary language while keeping a sense of accessibility to engage the audience, successfully blending old and new.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, 1890 was the year Viennese composer Johannes Brahms announced his plan for retirement. By this point, the 57-year-old composer had already written a number of major works, including three piano sonatas, two piano concertos, four symphonies, and three string quartets. Exhausted from his labours, he announced “it is high time to stop.” Brahms could not keep away from composition for long, however, and in his final years turned back to the piano with a gentler, more introspective and intimate style that many historians have interpreted as a personal exploration of life and death. Opus 117 and Opus 118, each a set of several smaller pieces, are characterized by a sense of wisdom and reflection, where the performing challenges lie not in great technical virtuosity but in the musical interpretation. The performer must capture the weightiness of this late style, and faces the formidable challenge of infusing complex writing with the utmost tenderness. Many of the pieces are in three-part form, with the final section hearkening back to the first. Within the pieces, Brahms uses his typical techniques of cross-rhythms, dense chords built on thirds and sixths, thick counterpoint, and preference for the inner voices to create a dark, rich sound. Additionally, he makes full use of the piano’s resources, including the very lowest notes that did not exist on the piano before his time.
Brahms himself described the three intermezzi of Opus 117 as “the cradle to my sorrows.” This is a fitting description, as their composition in 1892 coincided with the deaths of his sister, Elise Grund, and of his close friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. The first intermezzo, in E-flat major, is one of Brahms’s few works with a direct literary reference and is preceded by the following lines:
Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und Schön!
Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn.
Sleep gently, my child, sleep gently and well!
It saddens me to see you cry.
The German text comes from Herder’s Volkslieder compilation, but the idea originally comes from an anonymous English Elizabethan ballad that tells of a woman who has been abandoned by her child’s father. In the poem, the mother sings a sad lullaby to her child, lamenting the pain that awaits him as he grows up. The intermezzo combines a sweet, simple melody with a darker middle section, suggesting both the tenderness and the pain that are present in the text. The second intermezzo, in b-flat minor, features an opening melody tucked in between flowing arpeggios, while the third, in c-sharp minor, contains barren unison octaves that create a ghostly and bleak atmosphere.
Opus 118, composed in 1893 and dedicated to Brahms’s long-time friend and fellow musician Clara Schumann, consists of six pieces of varying tempos and styles. The second intermezzo, in A major, is perhaps the most well-known for its transcendental beauty and rich sounds. It is followed by the fiery g minor Ballade, a title Brahms had not used since his Opus 10 set, which provides a surprise contrast to the gentleness of No. 2. The fifth piece of the set, the F major Romance, demonstrates Brahms’s late style of melodic writing. The melody is not presented clearly in one voice, but rather is born as a result of the blending of the top line and the inner voices. The final piece of the set, the haunting e-flat minor Intermezzo, begins with fragments that reflect the Dies Irae chant from the Requiem mass for the dead. The key is one often reserved by composers for pieces of sorrow and grief, though the depth and beauty of the piece give it an enduring quality that suggests not death but eternity.