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Awesome Music / Johannes Brahms

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Johannes Brahms was named alongside Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven by the German conductor Hans von Bülow as one of "the three Bs", three composers who helped to define western classical music whose names happened to begin with B. It's not hard to see why von Bülow felt Brahms was worthy to be ranked alongside Bach and Beethoven:

  • Brahms' four symphonies are all regarded as among the sublime achievements of the late Romantic symphony.
    • It took Brahms somewhere between fourteen and twenty-one years to go from the first sketches to the first performance of his Symphony No.1 in C minor. It was worth the wait; Hans von Bülow sometimes referred to the symphony as "Beethoven's Tenth", deeming it the first worthy successor to the symphonic tradition Beethoven had established half a century earlier. Indeed, part of the reason for the symphony's long gestation was because Brahms wanted to compose a symphony worthy of Beethoven, and it follows a similar "tragedy to triumph" journey to Beethoven's fifth and ninth symphonies.note  With this work, Brahms single-handedly revived the symphony as a musical work, which had previously been viewed as somewhat passé.
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    • Symphony No.2 in D major took Brahms just a single summer to compose, which stands in contrast to the twenty-one years he needed to complete Symphony No.1 to his satisfaction. Despite being the only one in which all four movements are in major keys, it hides an inner sadness that makes it especially potent.
    • Symphony No.3 in F major was composed nearly six years later. Brahms deftly weaves between major and minor modes throughout the first and last movements (settling into major just in time for the coda in both), and the plaintive third movement is one of his most intensely emotional pieces.
    • Symphony No.4 in E minor has plenty of awesome moments, from the first movement's falling thirds motif, the solemn horn call that opens the slow second movement, and the third movement defying the convention that scherzo movements had to involve a central trio instead of simply exploring the possibilities of one set of themes.note  It is also the only true scherzo movement in his symphonies, the other third movements being more akin to intermezzi. The final movement is also a great deal of awesome; Brahms has the whole powerful and tragic thing firing on all cylinders — and unlike most symphonies in a minor key (including his first symphony in C minor), he doesn't shift into the major mode for the ending. It is also a rare example of a passacaglia finale in the symphonic literature.
  • Though (and perhaps because) Brahms' two piano concerti are both very demanding of the soloist, they are each fifty minutes of pure awesome.
    • The orchestral introduction to No.1 in D minor is a musical adventure all on its own, and contains the germ of almost every melodic idea in the entire piece; the drama that unfolds in the first and third movements brackets a more serene slow movement, and the whole is never less than spellbinding.
    • Paradoxically, despite being considered one of the most (and often the most) technically difficult piano concerti in the standard repertoire, No.2 in B-flat major is more low-key, and the piano plays a decidedly supporting role for large stretches, but it is packed with moments of outstanding beauty, and it takes a lot of technical acrobatics and emotional sensitivitynote  to pull off a successful performance. As with the earlier concerto, the first movement is a sweeping musical journey on its own, and includes some of the loveliest melodies Brahms ever composed; the procession of glorious music continues through the ferocious scherzo, the idyllic cello solo-led slow movement, and the jaunty (if lightweight) finale. It's a rare example of a four-movement concerto, most others from the Classical and Romantic eras being three movements.
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  • Brahms' violin concerto is one of the greatest of the late Romantic era, framing an impossibly gorgeous slow movement (led by an extended oboe solo) with an epic-length first movement and a lively, dance-like finale.
  • One of the greatest pieces of choral music ever written, Ein deutsches Requiem. As opposed to the usual Latin Requiem text, he used quotations of the Luther Bible, starting with the Gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Those that sow with tears shall reap with joy". Just beautiful enough to be a Tear Jerker all by itself.
  • Brahms is one of the 19th century's most revered composers of chamber music, writing classic examples of many different forms. When he paired the piano with string instruments, the results were almost invariably awesome.
    • Of the two cello sonatas, No.1 in E minor starts with a brooding, introspective movement that fuses an opening sonata allegro with a traditional slow movement, then moves on to a dignified minuet and trio and an angsty finale that defies any motion toward a major resolution; No.2 in F major frames an impassioned slow movement and sinister scherzo with two bright, sunny movements that provide many opportunities for the cellist and pianist to strut their stuff.
    • Brahms waited until quite late in life to try his hand at violin sonatas, and created three gems. No.1 in G major offers one of the composer's loveliest slow movements and a finale that moves from minor key anguish to major key serenity. No.2 in A major gives the pianist and violinist equal shares of the spotlight; the second movement fusion of slow movement and scherzo is a masterstroke. And No.3 in D minor continues to give plenty of shining moments to both performers; the first movement moves from torment to tranquility, but after a songlike slow movement and troubled scherzo, the stormclouds return and remain firmly in place throughout the finale.
    • And what happens when Brahms writes for piano with both cello and violin? Three awesome piano trios, that's what. No.1 in B major is one of his earliest works, and stands out for a finale that is anchored throughout in B minor, not B major. No.2 in C major transcends its small ensemble to become a work of almost symphonic grandeur, particularly in the outer movements. And while No.3 in C minor is a more compact work than its predecessor, it is no less powerful.
    • Add a viola to the violin, cello, and piano, and you get three outstanding piano quartets. The most famous is No.1 in G minor, which boasts a gypsy-inspired "alla zingarese" rondo finale. The highly Schubertian No.2 in A major is Brahms' longest chamber work, taking nearly 50 minutes to perform and packed end to end with charming melodies. And No.3 in C minor is the most concise and tightly constructed of the three; the ingenious first movement that blends sonata allegro with theme and variations is a standout.
    • But why stop at four musicians? Add a second violinist and you get the Piano Quintet in F minor, viewed by many musicologists as one of the greatest, and possibly the greatest, piano quintet ever composed. A masterclass of interplay between the piano and string quartet, full of darkly passionate melodies, and boasting highly advanced harmonic language in its outer movements, it remains one of his most enduring chamber works.
  • And Brahms was just as adept at writing for string ensembles without a piano.
    • Like the symphony, the string quartet struggled for much of the 19th century as composers wondered what could possibly be done with the form that Beethoven hadn't already done. Brahms laboured long and hard over Quartet No.1 in C minor and Quartet No.2 in A minor, but the wait was worth it; No.1 boasts almost orchestral dimensions in its outer movements and a more intimate atmosphere for the affable slow movement and haunted scherzo, while No.2 is an altogether more lyrical affair. Quartet No.3 in B-flat major is the lightest of the three, and is particularly striking for giving extended time in the spotlight to the viola in its third movement (despite being dedicated to cellist Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann; Brahms wryly suggested that Engelmann might want to change instruments!).
    • But throw in a second viola, and you get two of the greatest string quintets by any composer since Schubert. Brahms was rightly proud of Quintet No.1 in F major, which moves from a pastoral first movement to a second movement based on dance movement fragments he had composed years earlier to a finale bursting with vivacity. Quintet No.2 in G major was planned as a swan song before Brahms' retirement; the Hungarian-influenced finale would have been a brilliant final gesture for any composer.
    • And why stop at five? Add a second cello and you get two gems in the crown of the string sextet canon. Sextet No.1 in B-flat major is the more popular of the two, with thematic links across the first and last movements as they frame a solemn theme and variations and a genial scherzo and trio. Sextet No.2 in G major hits the ground running with a highly exotic introduction to its first movement, and the harmonic progressions are some of Brahms' most fascinating.
  • Brahms also contributed some masterpieces to chamber music for wind instruments.
    • The Trio in E-flat major for piano, violin, and French horn ranks as one of the latter instrument's greatest chamber music showcases. Along with the Deutsches Requiem, the trio is one of the pieces Brahms composed to express his grief over his mother's death; though all but the third of its four movements end in the major mode, the shadows are never far away, especially in the second theme of the first movement, the trio of the second movement, and throughout the third movement.
    • Brahms came out of retirement as a composer after befriending the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom he composed the Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello, and piano, the Quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings, and two sonatas in F minor and E-flat major (which were also arranged for viola and piano). Brahms was still getting the hang of writing chamber works for clarinet in the trio, but the outer movements are still gems; the quintet is a triumph from start to finish, with special mention going to the theme and variations in the finale; and the finales of the two sonatas, an ebullient rondo in the F minor and an introspective but ultimately joyful set of variations in the E-flat major, make them just as good a farewell to Brahms' chamber music career as the second string quintet was intended to be.