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May 7 Composer Birthday: Brahms. Ah, Brahms.

May 7 Composer Birthday: Brahms. Ah, Brahms. featured image

The young, dashing Brahms

 

You’ll often hear this among music students or professional musicians, as they recover from a horrible breakup: “ah, it’ll be good for my Brahms.” If you’re lucky enough to be able to play his music, it is one of the best kinds into which to pour your heart and soul as you recover from whatever ails your heart.

It was 19th century conductor Hans von Bulow that declared “The Three B’s of Music” being Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, such was Brahms’ stature as a composer. He wrote symphonies, songs, chamber music, and solo works for violin, piano, cello, clarinet and choir.

An admirer of Bach, Brahms was masterful at counterpoint. Like many other composers who studied Bach, Brahms wrote fugues to prove his worth. He was considered the successor to Beethoven, and loved the classical structure, so in that vein, he was considered an innovator. By romantic era standards, though, he was considered a traditionalist, and even old-fashioned, by the standards of forward-thinking Romantic composer Richard Wagner.

Ever heard the Quartet No. in G minor? This intensely dramatic, heartfelt and powerful work premiered in 1861 with Brahms’ muse, Clara Schumann, composer Robert’s wife, at the piano. Brahms himself was at the piano for the Vienna premiere in 1862.

The last movement, the “rondo alla zingarese: presto” (“refrain in the gypsy style, super duper fast”), is a barn-burner, if there ever was one, and is known for being outrageously difficult with complex rhythms and soloistic virtuosity. To this day, it remains one of the most difficult movements in all of Brahms’ chamber music. It’s also frightful for the page turner, because you can’t get excited nor caught up in the music, or you’ll forget to stand up and reach for the page. It’s a conflicted feeling to be sitting right behind this tornado of emotional music without allowing yourself to be drawn into it. Calm, cool, poise is required all the way through, especially for the “backflips” (repeated sections).

Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25:
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Christian Tettzlaff, violin
Tabea Zimmermann, viola
Clemens Hagen, cello

Johannes Brahms was born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, and died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria.

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