Brahms and the Piano


Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, Bath Spa University

16th July 2014


I have to begin this piece by confessing to a lifelong love of the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  Hearing three of his late Intermezzi at home as a child, played downstairs by another family member on our piano (it was the Op.117 set) began a devotion which has never waned. Many other musicians and music-lovers could say the same, across the world, including the Far East, whereas in 2015, he has some of his greatest admirers and interpreters. In my teens, along with so much other classical music, I played the shorter piano pieces, discovering both the Handel and Paganini sets of variations, (1861 and 1865) and the early F minor Sonata, Op. 5 published in 1854 when Brahms was only 21. In the 2015 Leeds International Piano Competition, it was notable that three of the twelve semi-finalists chose the F minor Sonata as the main longer work of their recital. At one time, even though it was always played more than the other two early sonatas, Opp. 1 and 2, The F minor seldom appeared in recital programmes. The 2015 Leeds competition first prize- winner, the Russian Anna Tcubulyeva, gave a magnificent performance with the Halle Orchestra (under Mark Elder) of the B flat Piano Concerto of 1881, by common consent one of Brahms’ greatest, most nearly perfect and most enduring works.

In the early 21st century, his music is played all over the world, especially his orchestral, chamber and piano music. Many of his 200 songs are in the standard repertoire of German Lieder singers everywhere. Choral societies love his German Requiem (1863-67), which stands alongside those of Mozart, Verdi, Faure and Duruflé as among the most often-performed works of its kind. His vast output of part-songs and other choral works is not so frequently done, but this is a reflection of the big changes in society since his lifetime, when the demand for such works was much greater in Germany and Austria. Two shorter vocal works stand out; they are the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op, 54 for SATB chorus and orchestra, after Holderlin, from 1868-71, and, even more, the glorious Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, for solo contralto with TTBB chorus and orchestra, a setting of Goethe’s Harzreise in Winter. I am happy to say that I have accompanied violinists and cellists in the sonatas for those instruments, as well as clarinettists in the two sonatas for clarinet and piano which Brahms wrote near the end of his life, inspired by the tone-quality and skill of his friend Richard Mühlfeld’s playing. Mühlfeld was principal clarinettist in the Meiningen Orchestra.

As with so many people of our time, the old conflict between followers of Wagner (twenty years older than Brahms) and those of Brahms himself (they used to be called the ‘Brahmins’) means little for me today, other than as an historical curiosity and phenomenon.  At the same time, it was a rea enough gulf in the 1870s and 1880s, with influential musicians and journalists vigorously taking sides. Today we know very well that the world is big enough to accommodate both these giants of the musical landscape, so very different in their talents, their aims and approaches to music, as well as their personalities. They were utterly at variance anyway, the endlessly talking and monstrously egotistical Wagner contrasting with the relatively quiet, gruff, self-defensive and frequently deliberately rude Brahms. Wagner delighted in publicity, self-projection and self-aggrandisement. He was a conductor and a man of the theatre through and through. He expected (and often received) personal loyalty and, above all, financial support, wherever he could find it. Brahms was an active practical musician, a solo pianist, accompanist and choral conductor, as well as a composer and scholar of earlier music.  But he was essentially a very private man who hated self-exposure. In due course, as he devoted himself more and more to composition, Brahms became quite rich from his work, and was always generous with money. In his final years, however, as his health deteriorated, he became effectively a recluse.

Photograph of Brahms c. 1860 aged 27

For most people who discover the joys of Brahms’ music, the four symphonies come very high on the list, along with the four concerti (two for piano, one for violin and the late double concerto for violin and cello). Two typical example so modern programming may be given her, both noticed while I was on holiday in Europe. On May 5-8 2011 four concerts were given in Baden-Baden, the German spa town. The umbrella title was ‘Melancholy in Music’, each concert centred around a big work by Brahms—the Clarinet Trio, the First Piano Concerto, the Second Symphony and the last Cello Sonata.  Then in the summer of 2013, the conductor Riccardo Chailly was giving all the four symphonies and all the four concerti in Paris, alongside a number of shorter works. The French have loved Brahms’ music throughout the twentieth century and beyond. As to the symphonies, I heard them in my teens in the 1950s, in the order of No 2 in D, No.1 in C minor, No. 4 in E minor and No. 3 in F, on LP and on the radio. They are, of course, standard repertoire for every major orchestra throughout the world, to the extent that some conductors almost expect players to be able to deliver them by heart.  No. 3, the only one which ends quietly, and possibly my favourite now of the four, even has a short, sly quotation from the Sirens’ Chorus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser Act One, Scene One  (‘Naht euch dem Strande, naht euch den Lande’) early in its first movement. Wagner may have thought ill of Brahms, but Brahms admired Wagner’s works, from a distance, and attended the first two of the Ring cycle (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) in Munich in 1876. He himself never composed an opera, though he sought a suitable libretto for many years. Two he came near to setting were The Love of Three Oranges, ((later set by Prokofiev) and King Stag (later set by Hans Werner Henze). The Goethe-based cantata Rinaldo perhaps comes nearest to what a Brahms opera might have sounded like.

Wagner attacked Brahms in 1879 in an essay Über den Dichten und Komponieren (On Writing and Composing); we cannot be surprised by this, as he had done this before, and found that vitriol came easily to him. As far as evolving style is concerned, it has always been recognised that Brahms echoed the rhythmic layout of the opening of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, in his very first published work, the C major Piano Sonata, Op.1. Malcolm Macdonald has jokingly and amusingly pointed out that Beethoven seems to be anachronistically quoting the opening idea of Brahms’ 1885 Fourth Symphony (the E minor falling and rising figure) in the Adagio of the Hammerklavier (1818/19). ‘Any fool can see that’ was Brahms’ contemptuous comment when several people saw a similarity between the famous C major ‘march ‘ tune in his First Symphony finale (1976) and the big D major ‘Ode to Joy’ melody in Beethoven’s Ninth (1824).

Brahms in the 1890s


As we look across Brahms’ outwardly uneventful life, ended when he was not quite 64, shortened by the same cirrhosis of the liver that killed Beethoven at 56, we notice how he met, one by one, all the other famous composers of the day, and a host of minor ones. He took only a single composition pupil in that time but managed to advise many younger composers on their work, sometimes making enemies in the process; the supreme example is Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) who never forgave him for telling Wolf to go away and study counterpoint.  Brahms’ music found its way during his lifetime, but by no means everyone found it easy. Peter Gay observes in his essay ‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ (echoing the novel by Francoise Sagan) that his works were more admired for their craftsmanship than loved for their naturalness and inspired inevitability. The German Requiem did not go down well at the very outset, nor did the First Piano Concerto, in which Brahms himself played the solo part at the première in 1859; both became successful later on. His last orchestral work, the Double Concerto, Op. 102, was received coolly at its first performance. Other now largely forgotten composers, such as Goldmark, Volkmann, Litolff, even Raff and Scharwenka, were more popular, and more readily programmed by conductors. Bernard Shaw, that brilliant but unreliable critic, an arch-Wagnerian and never an admirer of Brahms’ music, praised to the skies the new symphony by the now totally forgotten Hermann Goetz (1840-1876), saying that compared with Goetz, Brahms was simply ‘a dolt’.  In today’s world it is hard to believe that Shaw actually said this; but then Wolf’ s behaviour is also difficult to credit, too, though we know that for all his great gifts he was mentally unbalanced. Other composers now recognised as great masters, and whose work has now entered the standard repertoire found their creative lives problematic in this period; Anton Bruckner, another composer of symphonies, also associated with Vienna, but nine years older than Brahms, had great difficulties, to the extent that several of his works exist in various editions.  Brahms would never have agreed, as Bruckner did more than once, to alter his scores on the advice of friends and colleagues. These editions, as Brucknerians everywhere know very well, have been a source of disagreement and controversy ever since.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) a generation younger than  Brahms, found the older composer’s music hard going initially, but understood him more as he heard subsequent live performances. Strauss was more instinctively drawn to the Wagnerian idiom, and conducted Wagner in the opera house, as did Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Two important conductors were instrumental in spreading the good news about Brahms’ music in Europe. They were Hans von Bülow, first husband of Liszt’s daughter Cosima (later Wagner’s second wife) and Hans Richter. Bülow (1830-1896) championed Wagner initially, but after he had taken over the Meiningen Orchestra in Germany, programmed the work of Brahms increasingly, so that audiences became more familiar with the Brahmsian idiom. Brahms himself conducted his Fourth Symphony with this orchestra. Richter (1843-1916) was the first conductor of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876, but became Chief Conductor of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester from 1899 to 1911, and programmed all the main large works by Brahms.  In addition, Brahms became the admired stylistic model for certain later British composers - Stanford, Parry, Elgar - and as the 20th century progressed, all his chief instrumental works in particular entered the standard repertoire, and have never left it. Some great composers (Benjamin Britten is the supreme, inexplicable and bizarre example) have decried and sneered at Brahms’ music, but they are great rarities. Stravinsky, a composer who was on the face of it Brahms’ polar opposite, said ‘What the public like in Brahms is the sentiment; what I like has a more architectonic basis.’

Arnold Schoenberg, the arch-modernist, and a learned man saturated, like Brahms himself, in the music of the past, was always aware of Brahms; skill and technical originality. He wrote about it in his now –famous essay ‘Brahms the progressive’ (1947), which has its origin in a lecture given in 1933.Schoenberg, born in 1874, grew up in the Vienna of Brahms’ later years, and always loved Brahms’ music. He famously orchestrated one of his favourite Brahms pieces, the early G minor Piano Quartet, Op. 25, and I have heard this in a public orchestral concert as well as on disc. Schoenberg reminded the reader of his essay that ‘those who disliked Wagner (‘the progressive, the innovator’) clung to Brahms (‘the academician, the classicist’) and vice versa. There were many who disliked both. They were, perhaps, the only non-partisans. Only a small number were able to disregard the polarities of these two contrasting figures while enjoying the beauties of both of them’.  He was also able to say with confidence that ‘what had seemed an impassable gulf in 1883 (when Wagner died) was in 1897 (the year of Brahms’ death) no longer a problem.  The greatest musicians of the time ‘he goes onto say, ‘Mahler, Strauss, Reger and many others, had grown up under the influence of both these masters. They all reflected the spiritual, emotional, stylistic and technical achievements of the preceding period. Crucially, Schoenberg saw that in his own time, certainly in the years after Brahms’ death, the old factional antagonism was an irrelevance, even an absurdity. ‘What then had been an object of dispute ‘, he says, ‘had been reduced to the difference between two personalities, between two styles of expression, not contradictory enough to prevent the inclusion of the qualities of both in one work' (Style and Idea, Faber 2/1975, p.399). He was including himself in this, thinking perhaps of his early works such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899) and the symphonic poem after the play by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelleas und Melisande (1903). Debussy’s great opera on this same text had been performed in Paris for the first time only a year earlier.


Brahms, who grew up in Hamburg, the son of poor parents (a town musician and a seamstress) was taught the piano initially by Otto Cossel, a pupil of the local pianist, teacher and composer Eduard Marxsen (1806-1887). Marxsen took over the tuition of the young Brahms, and quickly saw that he had a special gift for composition as well as for playing the piano. So Marxsen gave him lessons in strict counterpoint, and introduced him to the works of J.S.Bach and Beethoven.  Indirectly through Marxsen, Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853. Together these two had a profound influence on his whole life.  In 1881, near the height of his career, Brahms dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to Eduard Marxsen.

Schumann’s declaration in 1853 that the young Brahms was, in effect, the German composer of the future, has become legendary. What Schumann said was that Brahms, still only 21, was ‘someone who is fated to give us the ideal expression of the times’.  Schumann’s own mental health was in sharp decline and after his suicide attempt in 1854, he was sent to an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn. Clara, his wife since 1840, and one of Germany’s leading pianists, as well as the mother of Schumann’s seven children, never visited him there; she was strongly discouraged from doing so, on emotional grounds, by the hospital management. Brahms, however, did go, many times. In one sense Schumann and Brahms could be said to have had a quasi-father-and –son relationship, both artistic and personal. 

During the difficult years 1854-56, there is no doubt that Brahms fell in love with the remarkable but always loyal Clara. It is certain that they became very intimate friends in Düsseldorf, the Schumann family home, but improbable that Clara and the young Brahms became lovers in the conventional sense. During this time, Brahms, without money of his own, did all he could to ease the burdens and distress of Clara. He actually took charge of the household finances, on a practical level. Meanwhile, Clara went on strenuous European concert tours in 1854-6 to support her large family, and to raise money also for Robert’s hospital expenses at Endenich. All biographers of both Clara and Brahms agree that they came to love each other deeply, driven to inter-dependency by circumstances, but also by common interests. Yet social mores and personal restraints would have held them back from physical passion. After Schumann’s death and funeral, there was a theoretical possibility that   Brahms might have married eventually, despite the age-difference of nearly fourteen years; Clara had been born in 1819, Brahms in 1833. But they were both fiercely independent people, and despite their strong attachment, they made a decision to part and go their separate ways. It was wise, sensible and realistic. Brahms never married, nor did Clara re-marry. Clara moved first to Berlin and then to Baden Baden, while Brahms eventually settled in Vienna.  But Brahms was to be involved deeply in the complete edition of Schumann’s works which evolved later.  As an editor, he had his own views, which often came into conflict with those of Clara. Their correspondence over the years was voluminous, and it is said that she displayed some jealousy and criticism, when   Brahms began into a very close friendship, mainly through correspondence, with Frau Elizabeth von Herzogenberg (1847-1892), a fine musician married to the composer and conductor Freiherr Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900).   Heinrich was a staunch advocate of Brahms’ music, and his wife was for a time one of Brahms’ piano pupils. Clara predeceased Brahms, in 1896, and it was the long journey from Vienna to her funeral in Germany which (he was already ill himself) hastened his own end in the following year. Brahms had also been one of the editors of the Complete Bach Edition, and was really, as I have said already, a composer-scholar, a natural musicologist by temperament, with interests stretching back to 16th century Franco-Flemish polyphony.

From his boyhood, Brahms made a strong impression as a pianist. His piano style derives from his powerful, fluid natural technique, and large stretch. All the early keyboard works show this; they are all, in their different ways, technically demanding, often uncompromising, and even occasionally awkward under the hands.  Gifted though he was as a child, he was nevertheless fifteen before he gave his first public recital. Brahms was soloist in the first performances of both his piano concertos, No.1 in 1859, aged 26, and No. 2 in 1881, aged 48. He often performed the piano part in his chamber works, and accompanied singers all his life. All the women with whom he developed close relationships after Clara Schumann were singers.  In the earlier Vienna years, his playing was much admired by connoisseurs in the Habsburg capital, for its thoughtfulness of interpretation, even though some commented on a certain ‘reticence in expression.’ His friend the great Slovakian –born violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), who was the dedicatee of the Violin Concerto, Op. 77 , did not at first take to the young Brahms as a person, registering his dislike and disapproval of what he saw as Brahms’ ‘egoism and thoughtlessness’ in the Düsseldorf period. Yet though he noticed that Brahms refused to play in public at that time, he felt this was a great pity ‘because,’ as Joachim put it, ‘he plays divinely. I have never heard piano playing (except perhaps Liszt’s) which gave me so much satisfaction - so light and clear, so cold and indifferent to passion.’ Joachim praised Brahms’ compositions too, as ‘an easy treatment of the most difficult forms----so pregnant, rejecting all earthly sorrows with such indifference.  I have never come across a talent like his before. He is miles ahead of me.’ (Letters from and to Joseph Joachim, sel. and tr. Nora Bickley, London 1914, pp.91-92).

It is worth recalling here that Joachim’s central affinity was with the mainstream tradition of nineteenth –century German music, through Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and that although in 1850-53 he was leader of Liszt’s orchestra at Weimar, he broke with Liszt in 1857.  Joachim then became one of the first signatories to Brahms’ declaration against the so-called ‘Musicians of the Future’ (1860) which (much though we may regret it in 2015) was actively hostile to Liszt and his followers. Incidentally, Joachim influenced the late violin works of Schumann (the two sonatas and the violin concerto) and composed standard cadenzas to both the Beethoven and the Brahms violin concertos. That Brahms disliked the music of Liszt is a matter of historical fact, however much we might regret it now. Liszt’s reputation as a composer in his lifetime was always problematic, despite his huge reputation as a prodigious virtuoso pianist, arguably the greatest –ever. Many of his works, in his later years, were large –scale religious compositions, and generally have not lasted well. Liszt’s symphonic poems ---and he effectively invented the form, a typical product of nineteenth –century romanticism---have had varied fortunes, with a small handful still being performed, but the majority now of historical interest only. The piano works, most of them , have always attracted players, and Liszt’s songs have experienced a recent burst of interest for modern interpreters . Like Brahms, Liszt avoided opera, after a very youthful effort, outside his numerous transcriptions from the operatic works of other composers, including Verdi and Wagner. During the twentieth century, the reputation of Liszt’s best compositions rose steadily, and in the early 21st century, he is recognised at last as one of the great masters, and as a pioneer ( in some of his later works) of 20th century modernism. There has never been any doubt about his stature as one of the most generous- spirited figures in any of the arts of his time, a man always given to thinking the best of others, and untainted by the commonplace, casual anti-semitism all around him. Given the fact that Liszt’s very long professional and personal association with Wagner, the great musical anti-semite of his day, was close one, there are multiple ironies in this.  


Portrait of Liszt by Delacroix

Richard Wagner

Sketch of Brahms at the piano


Brahms owned two pianos in his lifetime, but played on many more in various cities across Europe. His first piano was a Conrad Graf of 1839, which had been presented by the maker to Robert and Clara Schumann on their marriage in 1840.Clara gave it to Brahms after Schumann’s death in 1856. A decade after his move to Vienna in September 1862, he was given a Johann Baptist Streicher piano of 1868 for his apartment (long-since demolished) at 4 Karlsgasse, just by the Karlskirche, in the centre of Vienna. He occupied this from 1871,after living at seven other lodgings from 1862, keeping this piano until his death. In his earlier years, Brahms’ main access to fine pianofortes was at the premises of the music dealers Baumgardten and Heins in Hamburg. He gave the premiere of the First Piano Concerto in 1859 on one of their pianos, having declined the Erard piano which he played in Dusseldorf at Clara Schumann’s house. In 1867, Clara was given a Broadwood grand, but she kept the Erard.

In 1873, Brahms placed the Graf piano in the Vienna World Exhibition, alongside pianos owned by Mozart, Beethoven and others, and eventually he gave it to the Gesellschaft de Musikfreunde (the Viennese Society of Music-Lovers), of which he had been Artistic Director from 1872 to 1875.  Nowadays this Graf is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna, but is in poor condition, even though it was used for a recording in the early 1960s. The Streicher piano came from a famous firm; J.B. Streicher was the son of Frau Nannette Streicher, who with her husband had been a close friend and associate of Beethoven. Though he played on a Streicher soon after moving to Vienna, Brahms was also fond of pianos made by Streicher’s main Viennese rival, Bosendorfer. Increasingly, he also played them as well as Bechsteins, Büthners, Grotrian-Steinwegs, and eventually pianos made by Steinway and Sons of Hamburg and New York. He also liked the pianos of Friedrich Ehrbar in the late 1870s and1880s, and played these in the Ehrbar salon in Vienna. Here, listeners were treated to two-piano, four-hand performances of large-scale orchestral works, for example the Second Symphony in 1877, the Second Piano Concerto in 1881, and the Fourth Symphony in 1885. After Brahms’ death, the Streicher piano went to the City Museum, which was unfortunately hit by Allied bombs during the Second World War, and the piano virtually destroyed. It was said that only the piano stand and a single leg survived.

Photograph of the young Brahms in Leipzig, in late 1853

Despite all his gifts as a player, Brahms made no pretence of being a career virtuoso, playing the works of many other composers besides his own. He did this for some time, but inevitably found that there was less and less time to practise as he spent more and d more time on composition. The baritone singer, composer and conductor Georg (later Sir George) Henschel apparently discovered Brahms in Koblenz in 1876, the year of the appearance of the First Symphony. According to Henschel, he was ‘furiously practising Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the piano part of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia for a concert he was to give that night.’ Henschel reported that ‘Brahms was red in the face (and was) having immense trouble in playing simple diatonic runs.’ His old virtuoso technique had seemingly gone down still further by the early 1880s, yet the great paradox here is that he still had no difficulty in playing his own works, including the première of the Second Piano Concerto in 1881,the most ferociously testing of all his keyboard works, in sustained energy as well as in purely digital precision. Incidentally, Henschel and Brahms became friends, and even went on holiday together to Rügen in 1876. Henschel created the role of Hans Sachs in the first (concert) performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in Leipzig in 1867. Die Meistersinger, which Vienna first saw in 1871, was a work deeply admired by Brahms, almost as much as he loved Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Photograph of Brahms walking in Vienna


Unlike the other great pianist-composers of the nineteenth century, Brahms did not produce works for the piano alone consistently and steadily over his whole lifetime. This contrasts noticeably with Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. Chopin of course, composed almost exclusively for the piano, while Schumann’s first 23 opus numbers were entirely for solo piano before the two song-cycles, Op. 24 and 25. Brahms has always stood out from his contemporaries as an unusually self-critical composer, used to destroying the manuscripts of works he decided were less than satisfactory. We cannot know how many fine pieces were thus lost to us. But his piano solo output can be divided into four sections, or phases, across his career, with considerable intervals between bouts of composition. They are:

1.     The early published works, from 1853 onwards. Apart from Opp. 3, 6 and 7, each of which consists of six songs, all these first ten opus numbers are for solo piano, while the D minor Piano Concerto, after starting life as a symphony, took on its present form as his Opus 15

2.     The ‘variation’ phase of the 1860s. This had begun touchingly with the Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 9, the theme being taken from one of Schumann’s later collection of short pieces, Bunte Blätter (Many-Coloured Leaves) Op 99. The main works here were the two sets of Op. 21 (on a Hungarian Theme and on an original theme), the ‘Handel’ Variations and Fugue Op.24, and the brilliant studies which made up the two books of Paganini Variations, Op. 35.  In this work, there are 24 variations in all, each deriving from the A minor theme from Paganini’s well-known 24th Caprice for solo violin - a theme also used later by Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawski. These variations are designed to test the player’s technique to the limits. This phase also includes the Variations on the St Antoni Chorale (otherwise known as the Variations on a theme by Haydn), Op.56. These exist in two modes, for piano duet and for full orchestra.

3.     The Eight Pieces (Klavierstücke) Opus 76 and the Two Rhapsodies, Opus 79, which date from the late 1870s. The Second Piano Concerto, Op. 83, also belongs to this phase.

4.     The final period, 1891-1893, when Brahms composed twenty short pieces, mostly in A-B-A ternary form, and mostly given the titles of Intermezzo or Capriccio. They were published in four collections, Op. 116 to Op. 119. Though some of these pieces still bristle with technical difficulties, overall, they reflect Brahms choosing a pathway of lyrical reflectiveness and inwardness. They are endlessly full of melodic, harmonic and structural interest, and are unlike anything else in 19th century piano music. Brahms was writing here for himself, but the outcome of these twenty pieces was that he was also writing in some for them for good amateur players, not just virtuoso professionals.

Brahms’ 51 Exercises for piano, begun in 1863 and completed then published in 1893, together with Op. 118 and 119, are technical exercises for piano, deliberately athletic and mechanical in character. They are in no way comparable with the Etudes of Chopin or the Transcendental Studies of Liszt, or even with Brahms’ own Paganini Variations, and are in fact in the same category as Liszt’s Technical Studies   of 1886, Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist, and Carl Tausig’s well-known Daily Exercises.  Their origin historically lies in the studies by J.B.Cramer (1804/1810) and Muzio Clementi (1817/1826). The 51 Exercises are what they are technical exercises, with little lasting musical merit. Although recorded for Naxos by Idil Biret in 1995, they are not recommended for pleasurable listening.

Brahms composed cadenzas for a number of famous keyboard concertos, notably Bach’s D minor, Beethoven’s G major, and no fewer than three by Mozart, K.453 in G, K.466 in D minor, and K.491 in C minor. The Beethoven was unpublished until 1907, and all the other four reached publication as late as 1927, thirty years after Brahms’ death. He also arranged the Schumann Piano Quintet, Op. 44 for piano duet, but this appeared in Brahms’ lifetime, in 1887. In the Standard Edition of the Collected Piano Works, a handful of transcriptions of works by other composers appear. These have always been familiar to me, though every one is a decidedly challenging piece for the performer. They are: a Rondo after Weber (the finale of Carl Maria von Weber’s Sonata in C, Op. 24;  a study in sixths which is an elaboration in slower tempo of Chopin’s famous  rippling F minor Etude,  Op.25, No.2;  a Presto after J.S. Bach, from his G major Violin Sonata, in two versions; and by far the best known,  a transcription for left hand only of Bach’s Chaconne  from the Partita in D minor for solo violin. These were published in 1869 and 1877, then together in 1879. The Chaconne was also transcribed for piano (both hands) by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and published in 1897. Busoni’s version has always been far better –known, and played much more. On a personal note, while at school I played Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the school orchestra, using a cadenza then thought to have been by Brahms, which I had heard on the radio played by Alexander Brailowsky. Though published in 1927 in Brahms’ Complete Works, it has turned out not to have been written by him at all, but by Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). He was a composer and conductor, well known to Brahms, who had become Head of the Leipzig Conservatoire on the persuasion of Mendelssohn in 1840, and stayed there until his death. Despite this change of attribution, I thought then, and still think that it was a good cadenza.

Interspersed with all these are the many chamber works for piano and strings, which for some lovers of Brahms’ music are at the heart of his achievement. These range from the fine early Trio in B major, Op. 8, which exists in an original version of 1853-4 and a revised version of 1889, right through to the C minor Trio of 1886-7, Op. 101. His interest turned to the clarinet towards the end, and we are lucky to have four impressive chamber works written around that instrument, culminating in the incomparable Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115.

Programming the piano works of Brahms is tricky. As Denis Matthews, the British pianist (1919-1987) remarked long ago, his works do not, unlike Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas or the works of Chopin, lend themselves to be performed in entire sets, complete recitals in themselves. It is most usual, for instance, to hear the ‘Handel’ set, Op. 24, as a main item in a programme with , say, Bach or Scarlatti, an early Beethoven sonata, perhaps a shorter Schumann work (the Arabeske, say, or the Three Romances ) and a twentieth century work. Some pianists nowadays are, I have noticed, prepared to play all the 28 Paganini variations in the same recital, prefaced by something else. However, this would not normally have been done fifty or more years ago, and is still doubtful practice even in our own time. If one looks carefully at the variety of characteristic Brahmsian techniques and textures in the shorter pieces - straightforward two-against three in right and left hand, hemiolas (when two bars in triple time (e.g.3/2) are played as if they were three bars in duple metre (e.g. 6/4) or the other way round), double counterpoint, or unexpected displaced rhythms - they are a permanent source of admiration and pleasure. However, an entire concert of Brahms pieces from Op. 76 to Op. 119 is not recommended, except possibly as a lecture-recital, to demonstrate, with commentary, aspects of the composer’s style. One basic reason for this is that Brahms’ keyboard style changed little for the start of his composing career to the end, so that little contrast would be evident or available. In my view, his works have their best effect in smaller groups, set off by other music. The early Four Ballades, Op. 10, work well as a set (Emil Gilels and Lars Vogt are among the many pianists who have recorded them) but it is rare to see the two famous Rhapsodies of 1879, in B minor and G minor, for example, programmed together. Paradoxically, Brahms makes a fine ‘encore’ composer, like his polar temperamental opposite, Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915).  Informed audiences who come to love the keyboard music of Brahms and look out for favourite individual pieces, as players or listeners, will recognise them in an unexpected ‘encore’ context, and respond accordingly.

I should like to say a final word here about the two concertos. Their very high stature among all piano concerti in 2015 has been emphasised, and is beyond dispute.  Different in their style and impact, they are obviously the product of the same musical mind, and have crucial aspects in common. John Ogdon, the great English pianist (1937-1989), when asked which concertos he ultimately liked to play above all others, replied ‘I think it would have to be both of the Brahms'.  Listeners have throughout my lifetime loved these two great works, beloved by players, too, admired for their qualities of feeling, profusion of musical ideas, formal skills, and intensity of expression.

In the First Piano Concerto, the opening orchestral ritornello of the first movement (Maestoso) is a long one, vigorous, declamatory and energetic, which takes time to settle into the main key, D minor, before the piano enters, lyrically, with a new theme, also in D minor. The only significant previous model for a piano concerto in this key was Mozart’s K.466 from 1784; Brahms would have known this work well. Bur while Mozart’s slow middle movement is a plangent, haunting Romance in B flat, the relative major of D minor, and an expected, natural contrasting key, Brahms’ slow movement, (Adagio) is in the tonic major, D, in a slow 6/4 metre. The pianist has many arpeggiando flourishes and trills later on, but the overall tread of this movement never varies. The orchestra alone closes the Adagio, in the same espressivo manner as it began. Brahms’ Finale is a Rondo, plunging straight into an Allegro non troppo in 2/4 time, brisk and lively, but not utterly hectic, opening with the piano, and echoed within eight bars by the orchestra. This was the first-ever concerto, to my knowledge, in which the whole structure of the work from start to finish was carried by a single tonality, one of Brahms’ favourite keys.

When Brahms came to compose the Second Concerto more than twenty years later, he once again decided to cast the slow movement, this time Andante, again in his much-loved 6/4 metre, and in the tonic key of B flat, effectively at first a cello solo with orchestra.  But a huge B flat first movement could not be followed by a slow movement in exactly the same key, so Brahms decided to interpolate a brilliant Scherzo (in 3/4 time) between the noble B flat of the Allegro non troppo opening movement and the equally noble Andante, a Scherzo which is (with the Scherzo of the F minor Piano Quintet, Op. 34) one of his most unforgettable creations. Malcolm Macdonald suggests that this Scherzo is the nearest the concerto approaches to tragic expression, Up to a point, I would agree, but at the same time I have always felt that this movement is filled with intense physical excitement and elan vital, throughout. The minor key is a part of that physical excitement, as in the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is also followed by a big B flat slow movement. The languorous, hazy conclusion of the Andante, with cello obbligato (as at the opening) and woodwind against the rising sixths in the solo piano part, bring it to a close in B flat, ready for the launch into the brisk Allegretto grazioso finale. This is a sprightly dance movement beginning on the fourth degree (E flat) of the B flat major scale, so that the transition to the new section is natural and unforced. It is a witty and, in the truest sense, ‘entertaining’ finale, not a bar too long or short, a demonstration of absolute mastery.

Brahms was given the Order of Maximilian by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, by a great irony Wagner’s most generous and supportive patron, and the source of finance for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Opera House) not far from Munich.  Various European universities also honoured him, notably Breslau, which awarded him their D.Phil. (in philosophy, not music) as ‘vir illustrissimus…artis musicae severioris in Germania nunc princeps’.  As an acknowledgment, he composed his cheerful and light-hearted Academic Festival Overture (1879).  It was Charles Villiers Stanford who in 1877 offered Brahms an honorary degree from Cambridge University, where Stanford was Professor of Music.  Had he accepted, Brahms would have followed in the footsteps of Haydn to Oxford in the 1790s, though for Haydn, the two trips he made to England were happy ones, and bore a rich musical harvest in the Salomon symphonies. Brahms’ excuse was that he could not face the necessary sea-journey, but another unspoken reason was his very elementary knowledge of spoken English, even though he could read the language moderately well.

Photograph of Brahms c. 1894


This was the actual programme of my lecture/recital on 16 July 2014:

VI (a)

1.     Introduction: Chopin Prelude in C major, Op 28, No.1 (1830s), followed by Brahms’ late Intermezzo in C major, Op. 119, No. 3, published in 1893, played complete for stylistic comparison.

2.     The three early Sonatas, and the Four Ballades, Op. 10, 1853-54. Examples from the F minor Sonata, Op.5  (1853) and one of the Ballades (1854), in fact the ‘Edward’ Ballade, Op. 10, No.1, in D minor

3.     The Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15 (1856) Began life as a symphony. Premiered in Hamburg 22 January 1859. Three movements, all centred on the tonality of D. Brief references only.

4.     The Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861) Theme: Variations 1 to 3: Variation 7: Variations 11 and 12: Variations 20 and 21: beginning of Fugue

5.     The Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 (1865) Two books, 14 variations (studies) in each.  (N.B. The German Requiem dates from 1865-6, and was premiered in 1868) Theme: Variations 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11 from Book One. Variations 3, 4, 5,6, 12 and 13 from Book Two (without repeats)

6.     Waltz in A flat, Op.39 No.15. The set of sixteen waltzes was composed in 1865 for piano duet.  These were arranged in 1867 for piano solo.               

VI (b)

7.     The Eight Piano Pieces (Klavierstücke) Op. 76, Published in 1879, and composed between 1871 and 1878 Nos. 1 (F sharp minor) 3 (A flat)  5 (C sharp minor) and 8 (C major). I played Nos 3 and 5 complete.

8.     The two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (composed 1879, published 1880) B minor and G minor. I played the G minor Rhapsody complete.

9.     The Piano Concerto in B flat, Op. 83 (1881) Four movements. These are in B flat, D minor (Scherzo) B flat (slow movement) and B flat (Finale). Brief references only.

10.  The late piano pieces, all published in 1892-1893, but all possibly composed earlier. All are short, and most are in ‘ternary’, that is, A-B-A form. There are twenty in all, published in four sets, Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119. Quotations from several, including the D minor Capriccio, Op. 116, No.7 (Allegro agitato) and ending with the last one of all, the Rhapsody in E flat, Op. 119, No.4, marked Allegro risoluto, played in its entirety.


A Short Brahms Bibliography

The first Brahms biography, a four-volume doorstopper by his friend Max Kalbeck (1904-11) has never been translated into English. The loyal Kalbeck also edited several volumes of Brahms’ correspondence. For many years, there was little available in English on Brahms, other than the Master Musicians life and works volume (1935) by Peter Latham, and the German study by Karl Geiringer (1934-5, Eng. tr. 2nd ed. 1948). Both of these have now been superseded.

Macdonald, Malcolm: Brahms - Dent /Oxford Master Musicians series 1990

Swafford, Jan: Brahms - Macmillan 1998

Avins, Styra and Eisinger, Josef (eds. and translators): Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters - Oxford 1998

Frisch, Walter (ed.): Brahms and his World (essays) - Princeton U.P. 1990

Musgrave, Michael (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Brahms (essays) - C.U.P. 1999 [notably the essay by Michael Musgrave on The Years of Transition: Brahms and Vienna 1862-1875 (pp. 31-50), and that by Leonard Botstein on Brahms and his Audience: the Later Viennese Years 1875-1897 (pp. 51-75)]

Jacobson, Bernard: The Music of Johannes Brahms - Tantivy Press 1977

Matthews, Denis (ed.): Keyboard Music (Chapter 4) - Pelican 1972

Gal, Hans: Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality - Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1963

Gay, Peter: ‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ in Freud, Jews and other Germans: Masters and Victims of Modernist Culture, pp.231-256 - Oxford 1978

Schoenberg, Arnold: ‘Brahms the Progressive’ (1933) in Style and Idea (essays and articles) ed. and tr. Leonard Stein, pp. 398-441 - Faber 2/1975


Dr Robert Blackburn

Convenor, Literature and Humanities and former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University                                          

October 2015