Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody: The Wanderer Finds Solace

Early photographs of Johannes Brahms capture a solitary, contemplative figure. Brahms was a lifelong bachelor whose personal motto, Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”), found its way into the opening three pitches of the Third Symphony in the form of a musical cryptogram. The loving, platonic relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, and its creative influence, has been well-documented. Yet, scholars believe that for a period of time Brahms also harbored a deep, …

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Remembering Ivry Gitlis

Ivry Gitlis, the legendary Israeli violinist, has passed away. He was 98. Born in Haifa, Palestine to Russian-Jewish parents, Gitlis began playing the violin at the age of five. His teacher, Elisheva Velikovsky, had been a student of the German violinist, Adolph Busch. (About the same time, a  young Zvi Zeitlin studied with Velikovsky). Later, Gitlis studied with Mira Ben-Ami (a student of Joseph Szigeti). The influential violinist Bronisław Huberman opened doors …

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Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor: Music Written for Posterity

For Johannes Brahms, writing a string quartet was no casual undertaking. Brahms was profoundly aware that he was walking in the footsteps of giants—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert to be specific. In an 1869 letter to his publisher, Brahms noted that Mozart had taken “extreme care” with the set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn. Now, Brahms intended to do his “very best to turn out one or two passably …

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Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117: Autumnal Lullabies

Composed in 1892, the three Intermezzi for solo piano, Op. 117 are among the final works of Johannes Brahms. Filled with wistful nostalgia, they were written two years after Brahms’ formal retirement at the age of 57. The critic Eduard Hanslick described these brief autumnal works as “monologues” of a “thoroughly personal and subjective character…pensive, graceful, dreamy, resigned, and elegiac.” Brahms once described them as “three lullabies to my sorrow.” Along with …

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Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”): Brahms’ “Little Requiem”

In the summer of 1868, while visiting his friend Albert Dietrich in the North German coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, Johannes Brahms was drawn to the poem, Hyperions Schicksalslied by Friedrich Hölderlin. Buried in the middle of a 1797 novel depicting the Greek mythical titan Hyperion, the poem’s two verses contrast the lives of eternally blissful Immortals enjoying “luminous, heavenly breezes” with the restless existence of human beings, who are subject to the cruel whims …

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Remembering Leon Fleisher: Three Legendary Recordings

Leon Fleisher, the eminent American pianist, passed away last Sunday in Baltimore following a battle with cancer. He was 92. Born in San Francisco, Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 16 with Pierre Monteux and the New York Philharmonic. He performed Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, a work which would later become a signature part of his repertoire. At 23, he became the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth …

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Brahms’ Variations on a Theme (Not) by Joseph Haydn

The “theme and variations” may be the most fun-loving and exuberant of all musical forms. Its attributes include cleverness, virtuosity, and surprise. We can only imagine what it might have been like to hear Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert spinning a stream of improvised keyboard variations, each taking the listener on a new and unexpected adventure. There was an element of sport to these popular gatherings. Improvisational duels allowed for a game …

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