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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Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18: Janine Jansen and Friends

There is something comforting and nostalgic about the opening of Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major. It begins with an expansive theme in the cello, which seems to draw us in and wrap its arms around us in a warm embrace. In this melody, you can hear the motivic seeds of the similarly warm and majestic theme from the final movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. Completed in 1860, this is music by …

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Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor: “Free But Lonely”

Embedded in the four note motif which opens the first movement of Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 are the pitches F-A-E. These pitches form a musical cryptogram which corresponds to the phrase, “frei aber einsam,” (“free but lonely”), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms offered his own twist on this motto with the phrase, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”). This is another motif (F-A-F) which …

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Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1: Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim

We call it a “Cello Sonata,” but the official name Johannes Brahms gave this piece, completed in 1865, is “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” To stress further the equality between the two instruments, Brahms specified that the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” The E minor Sonata is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an Austrian music …

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