Milton Moore: The lesser Brahms compositions may hold the biggest pleasures
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No one would argue that Johannes Brahms was not a great musician. He is, after all, one of the famous Three Bs, that musical Mount Rushmore of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. That said, I don't listen to very much of his music recreationally. To me, most of it is dour, scowling, and overcooked. There aren't a lot of smiles in the famous pages of Brahms' output.
Brahms was acutely aware of his role as the standard-bearer for the legacy of Mozart and Beethoven, and in his later music, one senses the weight of endless labor. Opposing (even brawling) artistic camps of mid-19th century set up Brahms as the stylistic opponent of Richard Wagner, whose "music of the future" galvanized Europe, and Brahms carried their banner fairly unhappily.
When writing in the bedrock genres – the symphony and the string quartet – Brahms was oppressed by the weight of history. He didn't publish his first string quartet until he was 40 (neither Mozart nor Schubert nor Mendelssohn even lived to be 40), and his first symphony until three years later. He felt acutely the towering presence of Beethoven, a fellow German in a musical world with its capitol in Austria. Speaking of Beethoven, he said to a friend, "You will never know how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us."
Brahms' great masterpieces, such his German Requiem and Fourth Symphony, almost define "serious music."
But the Brahms I enjoy most is perhaps his least serious, not the "masterpieces" but the more purely recreational fare. The Brahms I listen to most often are his string quintets and string sextets, music that is free and flowing and as songfully melodic as Schubert. In both genres, Brahms is in his sweet spot, his fondness for darker string sounds amplified by the ensembles: the quintets are string quartets with an extra viola, the sextets add viola and a second cello.
So here are my two favorite … First, the Brahms I play most often, his Sextet for Strings No.1 in B-flat major, Op. 18. This early charmer opens with as lovely a movement as Brahms wrote, stepping out directly into 11 minutes on inventive melody and easy Ländler rhythms.
The slow movement is a set of variations deeply rooted in Baroque tradition, full of nobility.
The next movement is a quick little scherzo, written before Brahms became the sourpuss who wouldn't write scherzos anymore ("scherzo" is "joke" in Italian.)
And the final movement takes us back to where we began, an easy, free-flowing stream of melody, set as a rondo, so tunes keep reappearing as they go round and round.
I'm including one more track: the piano transcription of the sextet's second movement variations that Brahms wrote years after he wrote the sextet. These variations are the sextet's most distinguishing feature.
And we jump ahead 31 years, to one of Brahms final compositions, his String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, which retains that seamless flow of melody from the sextet, but with a good deal more drama in the mix.
The quintet opens with the cello forcefully offering the long – again Schubertian – main theme, and 1:20, you'll hear the second theme presented almost shyly by a viola before the violins take it up. The central development section has its stormy moments, but the easy tapering down to the restatement of the main theme at the end is simply entranced.
The slow movement that follows is one of Brahms' most beautiful … and one of the most beautiful viola solos in the literature.
The halting, searching allegretto that follows (no more joking from Johann) is suspenseful and narrative in its searching and its discovery of beauty and peace. It's woven of imitative counterpoint, a broadcloth from a simple thread.
The quintet ends with a remarkably compressed and intense dance of delight from the man who man his name initially with a set of Hungarian dances for orchestra.
Brahms was a complicated man who wrote complicated music, but these most direct expressions are the ones that I enjoy best.
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