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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Clara Schumann at 200

Composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing which surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound. – Clara Schumann (a diary entry from June, 1853) Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann (1819-1896). This week, we have explored Clara’s influence on the music of her husband, Robert Schumann, and close friend, Johannes …

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Schumann and Brahms: Musical Depictions of Clara

This Friday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Clara Wieck Schumann looms large in music history. With a concert career spanning 61 years, she was one of the greatest pianists of the Romantic period. She is credited with elevating the repertoire of the piano recital, replacing bravura showpieces with substantial, mature works. She was an influential teacher at Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatory. As a composer, she contributed piano …

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“Lerchengesang”: Brahms’ Most Ethereal Song?

Lerchengesang (“The Lark’s Song”) from 4 Songs, Op. 70 must rate as one of Johannes Brahms’ most ethereal and atmospheric songs. The text, by Karl August Candidus, pulls us into a floating, twilight dreamscape of passing memories amid “ethereal distant voices” and the “heavenly greetings of the larks.” Unfolding in gently-lapping arpeggios, the piano line drifts into the delicate upper registers with a sense of eternal longing and lament. This recording, featuring Renée Fleming and pianist …

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