Review Summary: The Summit of Character.
Composer Masterpiece Series. No. 3.
A champion of “absolute music”, the 19th century Romantic composer Johannes Brahms was often a polarizing figure during his lifetime. Brahms was a proponent of the old-school “classical” style, a style in which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert found their expression, a style that adhered to reasoned form and proportion, and a style that believed music’s best aesthetic exists in itself, rather than as an impression of something else. Brahms’ detractors, led by the ever-pompous Wagner, criticized him for his unfashionable approach to composition, believing that the “New German” embrace of programmatic music was superior to the old style.
The criticisms of the Wagnerian school towards Brahms, however, missed the mark. Although it is true that Brahms was loathe to assign programmatic titles to his works, he was not content to exist solely within the bounds of Beethovenian form, as limit-stretching as that was. As both a forward thinker and a self-styled individual, Brahms further stretched the boundaries of classical harmony and rhythm creating his own kind of “Bramsian” idiom which did in fact influence contemporaries and later composers.
This is not to say that Brahms wished to outdo Beethoven in bigness of sound, a fool’s errand. Quite the opposite. Nowhere is this more true that in a comparison between the two composers’ piano music. While it would be a mistake to say that Brahms lacked an eye for the grand, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel and the Third Piano Sonata in F Minor are witnesses to this fact, with his characteristic richness of sound and dashing sense of rhythm Brahms at his best could descend to a level of the utmost intimacy, surpassing even that of The Master.
We are thus brought to a discussion of Brahms’ late piano style and the pinnacle of character music, Op. 119. The miniatures of Op. 119 reveal Brahms at the Mt. Everest of his craft. In these pieces Brahms so masterfully manipulates our sense of time that the music seems to exist beyond rhythm. This is especially so in Op. 119’s first piece, an Intermezzo in B minor. Brahms begins with a five note descending B minor arpeggio in 3/8 in 16th’s that are all held for the duration of the measure, followed by the same pattern but six notes long, and then followed by another six-note pattern. Because the duration of five sixteenth notes is not long enough to complete a measure in 3/8, Brahms begins the next descending arpeggio, C# diminished, on the pickup to measure two. Six sixteenth notes started on the pickup to a measure in 3/8 leaves us on the pickup to the next measure, measure three, a descending F# minor in six sixteenth notes. Composed this way, our sense of beat is warped, the practical effect is a sense of spaciousness aided by the dissolution of the tyranny of the downbeat.
The harmonies of the second and third measures warp our sense of tonality. An analysis of the c#dim and F# minor harmonies could be construed differently. The second descending arpeggio begins on an A, and after a single scaler descending step to G, the melody leaps down in thirds until we hit E. This means that we have the notes: A, G, E, C#, A, and F#, and four of these notes can be rearranged into an e minor tetrachord, E-F#-G-A. Put together, the c# dim and the e minor tetrachord allows the melody to exist in two keys simultaneously, B minor and E minor. The third descending sequence can likewise be construed two keys, as an F# minor triad in B minor, or as an F# upper-minor (also known as F# locrian) tetrachord (F#-G-A-B) in F# minor. A melody that employs these rhythmic and harmonic techniques allows the music to exist on a planet with a weaker gravitational pull, not as tightly tethered to the forces of rhythm and tonality as it would be on earth, and Brahms uses his thus-evolved style to craft Op. 119.
The melody continues in this way until m. 17 where the texture opens up and gets a bit more assertive. Continuing in a similar but not likewise manner, we have transformed effortlessly into a richly harmonized D major melody accentuated by rocking octaves and off-beat punctuation. The rest of this short piece subtly switches back and forth between these two sections leaving the listener with a crystalline impression of the space between atoms.
Tied to a dactylic upbeat, the Intermezzo in E minor begins anxiously. The left-hand plays on-beat double-note repetition 16th’s, while the right plays off-beat double note repetition 16th’s. Again, Brahms has manipulated the rhythm, which is in 3/4. So masterfully has he done this that it’s somewhat hard to find the downbeat at all. Nevertheless, the anxiousness of this piece’s theme drives while the stillness of the first piece’s theme floats. This texture continues until m. 13 where a variation of the theme is played in triplets in A minor. Brahms wistfully varies the theme three times more until the waltz of the B-section in E Major. The character of the waltz is rich yet spacious and hints of unease. After a repeat of the waltz we come back to the A-section which varies from its first iteration. We begin slow but the rhythm builds until it reveals itself at its most confident in forte. We quickly soften then quickly louden and then quickly soften again until the piece fades quietly into silence.
The third piece in the set, an Intermezzo in C major in 6/8, can be called a theme and variation with ternary aspects. The main theme dances in four-note inner voice cells, a skip up – a step up - and a step back down. The bass plays arpeggios and the upper voice repeats the same note throughout the motif. The effect is one of a wave controlled. You have the buoyancy of the inner voice gliding up and down and the steadiness of the soprano voice. The theme waves through richly harmonized off key sonorities, resets, and repeats. The second variation stays true in rhythm and theme but quickly cycles brightly through F# minor, spookily through Bb minor, and then through F minor and Ab major and finally back to C major. This time, however, the notes are doubly long. The motivic cell quickly speeds up but is interrupted by a bright, rapidly descending dominant. The piece ends with exuberant arpeggios that drive us back home to a resounding rolled C major.
It would take something away from the final piece in the set, a Rhapsody in Eb, to set it to music theory. I wouldn’t want to lend it even one ounce of dryness. The music is too wonderful, the character too robust, and it should be heard not read. The first character is bright and confident, the second daring, even menacing, yet triumphant, the third tipsy-turvey, almost carnival-esque, the fourth utterly joyous, and the fifth vigorous and testosterone filled. So different is their character, yet they all glide into and out of each other effortlessly, as if they’re each smaller facets of one overarching grand theme. A masterpiece.
To compose Op. 119 Brahms distilled the essence of “character” into music. The individual characters of these pieces are so psychologically complete that you feel they are your long lost fraternal kin; you know the most intimate details of their psychological and physiological makeup, everything from the surface details of their appearance to their humors. In fact, it is even more accurate to say that we somehow already knew Op. 119, and only needed to hear the music to rejoice together in our reacquaintance. That Brahms accomplished crafting the program without the programmatic demonstrates such stratospheric musicianship that he belongs in the same conversation with his forbearers. Op. 119 is the summit of the character.