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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Rhapsodies, Op. 79 / Waltzes, Op. 39
Written in Vienna in 1864, and perhaps an early tribute to the city he had made his home,
Brahms’s Waltzes, Op. 39 were originally conceived as piano duets (available on Naxos
8.553139) and arranged for solo piano in 1867. These exquisite miniatures are characterised
by a joyful abandon not usually associated with this composer. With their quasi-orchestral
texture, the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 alternate passages of passionate urgency and tender
lyricism. Dedicated to ‘a beloved friend’ Clara Schumann, the Variations and Fugue on a
Theme by Handel are a remarkable series of 25 variations varying in mood and texture,
followed by a final fugue showing consummate mastery of the form.
By David Denton
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Waltzes • Two Rhapsodies • Three Intermezzi
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, as a pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy was able to use his talents by teaching and by playing the piano in summer inns, rather than in the dockside taverns of popular legend, a romantic misconception which he himself seems later to have encouraged.
In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.
It was in summer holidays spent outside Vienna that Brahms was able to devote himself to composition in relative tranquillity. The Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, were among the works he wrote at Pörtschach in 1879. They were published in 1880 and dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, wife of an aristocrat of French ancestry and amateur composer, settled in Leipzig, where their house served as a centre for a circle of admirers of Brahms. While the texture and passion of the First Rhapsody may breathe the spirit of romanticism, the form is one of classical clarity, a rondo, in which the opening theme re-appears to frame more lyrical episodes which finally predominate. The Second Rhapsody is in classical sonata form, its passionate first theme contrasted with a second, marked Misterioso.
The sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39, were written in Vienna in 1864 and published two years later with a dedication to Eduard Hanslick, who welcomed such a gift from a serious North German composer, who might have been supposed incapable of such Viennese frivolity. They may be seen as a tribute to the city where Brahms made his home. The dances seem to have been first written for piano duet, equally welcome to Hanslick, who indulged in such performance with young ladies of his acquaintance. Whether as duets or in the version for solo piano, they offered a significantly marketable product.
In 1879 Wagner wrote, in an ill-concealed reference to Brahms, of composers that one might one day meet in the disguise of a ballad-singer, the next in Handel's Hallelujah wig and another time as a Jewish czardas player, and then as a symphonist purporting to be number ten, this last a reference to popular praise of Brahms's First Symphony as the Tenth of Beethoven. When the two composers first met, in Vienna in 1864, Brahms had played for Wagner his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, written in 1861, and first performed by the composer in Hamburg in the same year. At the time Wagner was relatively polite when he remarked that one might see what could still be done with the old forms in the hands of someone who knew how to deal with them. The Handel Variations were intended for Clara Schumann, and sent to her in 1861 as a birthday present, with the dedication 'to a beloved friend'. The theme is taken from a suite for harpsichord, an air, followed originally by five variations. From this theme Brahms creates a remarkable work, a series of 25 variations followed by a final fugue, showing a consummate mastery of the form. The versions of the theme offered differ in mood and texture, but are all highly characteristic of their composer, who in no sense wears Handel's wig in the process.
The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, belong to a final group of piano pieces, principally the work of 1892, music often imbued with a certain autumnal melancholy. The first of the three carries at its head a quotation from Herder's translation of a Scottish folksong:
Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn.
The moving melody, the basis of the whole piece, is concealed in an inner part. The second Intermezzo makes expressive use of an arpeggiated texture, and the third presents the initial theme in stark and recurrent octaves.
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BRAHMS: Rhapsodies, Op. 79 / Waltzes, Op. 39