Brahms Reverence to Clara and Robert Schumann

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Into the day with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. © Charles Thibo

Is this an obsession? D minor. Many of the classical compositions I truly love are written in D minor: Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 “Reformation”. And Johannes Brahm’s Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 15. Aimez-vous Brahms? Oh, oui! I actually discovered this composer precisely through the novel “Aimez-vous Brahms?”, published by Françoise Sagan in 1959.

D minor then. Many a theory have been written about the different effect of major and minor keys on the human brain and their power to express and/or influence one’s mood. In this sense, D minor has been often associated with sad melodies. But there we have it, the melody is essential, not the key. While Schubert’s String Quartet certainly is a sad and disturbing piece, Brahms’s Piano Concerto is a triumphant and exuberant composition. And I could find as many brilliant and emotional pieces in C major or G major.

Elementary momentum

Brahms wrote his first piano concerto in 1856/57. It was performed for the first time in 1859 in Hanovre under the conductor and violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms achieved a masterful balance between delicate piano solos and moving tutti parts, like he did in his Violin Concerto in D Major (!) that I have discussed in an earlier post. A fantastic piece, a wonderful example of late Romantic music. Its power struck me one morning while I drove to work. I had to listen to it all over again, when I was at the office. I have a recording with the French pianist Hélène Grimaud and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Oh, what a delight! Even after having listened to it many times, it lifts me up every time.

The first movement – Brahms commands “maestoso” in the score – is usually played a little slower than Brahms anticipated, which gives it even more momentum. Momentum that my musical guide labels as “elementary”. And truly, the composer seems to have conjured all the elements to overwhelm the listener. The exact counterpart is the second movement: relief! The adagio is a lovely song and I must admit, it has some “tristesse” in it, but far less dramatic than in Schubert’s quartet. The final movement is playful and pleasant, with faint and less faint echoes of the first movement, testimony to Brahms talent to realize the full potential of the different voices in the orchestra.

An impossible love

In a letter to Clara Schumann he wrote on December 30, 1856: “I am painting a delicate portrait of you, that will become the adagio.” He was 23 then, he was in love with Clara, whose husband, Robert Schumann, had died in July, and it was clear that their friendship would not lead to anything more intimate. In the second movement, Brahms also included the line “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine” (Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord), generally seen as a reference to Robert Schumann whom Brahms used to call “Mijnheer Domine”. The two met in 1853, and since Schumann became insane soon after, their friendship did not have time to develop. But the acquaintance with Schumann was a defining moment for Brahms and he worshiped Schumann until his death.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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