Johannes Brahms


Serenader, ungerska danser, Haydn-variationer m.m.


Serenade No. 1 in D major Op. 11

1. Allegro molto
2. Scherzo: Allegro non troppo – Trio: poco più moto
3. Adagio non troppo
4. Menuetto I – Menuetto II
5. Scherzo: Allegro
6. Rondo: Allegro

Gifted but without prospects or money, the young Brahms was glad enough to accept a modest musical post at the court of the Prince of Detmold during the winters of 1857, 1858 and 1859. His duties were uninspiring and the pay small, but he gained valuable practical experience in corporate music-making and profited from his immersion in the classical scores housed in the library. His D minor Piano Concerto dated from those years and so too did his two Serenades, Op. 11 and Op. 16, both achieving their definitive form in 1860. The former one, in D major, had in fact begun life as a nonet for wind and strings. On Joachim’s recommendation, Brahms rescored it for Beethoven-size orchestra, with four horns but without trombones.

An early composition therefore and more expansive in its outer movements than Brahms would have favoured in later days, it has the qualities of conspicuous tunefulness, charm, freshness and vigour. By definition it could be expected to exceed the normal symphonic span of movements, and there are six, including two Scherzos and a Minuet. Haydn and early Beethoven loom large among its formative influences: what for instance could be more Haydnish than the start of the opening Allegro and its witty conclusion or indeed the second Scherzo. In the Minuet, however, older procedures are invoked, its Trio entitled Menuetto II after Baroque usage.

If Brahms’s command of the orchestra at that period lacked the sophistication it subsequently attained, the Serenade’s scoring sounds perfectly valid, his writing for horns and clarinets showing intimations of what was to come. By the same token, some of his idiomatic finger-prints are already in evidence, notably his fondness for triplets and the rhythmic effect of three against two, hemiola. It is in the extended, sonata-form Adagio that the essence of Brahms’s reflective vein, then and thereafter, is to be heard.

Christopher Grier (1989)

Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16

1. Allegro moderato
2. Scherzo
3. Adagio non troppo
4. Quasi Menuetto
5. Rondo

Both of Brahms’s serenades are products of his years as director of music at the court of Lippe-Detmold, where his presentation of the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart led him to try his own hand at such works. While the six-movement Serenade in D (Op. 11) began life as a nonet in 1857, the Serenade in A was conceived orchestrally from the start the following year. It is in five movements, and the scoring is unusual, omitting not only trumpets and drums but violins as well; this darkish string coloring accounts for a mellowness and intimacy more readily associated with chamber music. Brahms spoke of his Op. 16 as “a tender piece”, and after conducting the premiere in Hamburg on February 10, 1860, he remarked that he had rarely found so much pleasure in writing music. In that same year the two serenades became his first orchestral scores to see publication; the A major was revised and republished 15 years later.

Pastoral and serene for the most part, the opening movement ambles along without any big surprises but with some minor-tinged coloring that may have been introduced at the time of the revision. In the serenade’s symmetrical design, a vivacious little scherzo and a more expansive Quasi Menuetto flank the work’s centerpiece, an Adagio non troppo; this central movement’s flowing outer sections encase a strikingly dramatic middle one that contains a fugue based on the opening material’s bass line. An exuberant and outgoing rondo with a hearty outdoor flavor rounds out the work, the piccolo lending an element of almost giddy exhilaration to the robust good humor at the end.

Richard Freed


Hungarian Dances

No. 1 in G minor: Allegro molto (Orchestrated by: Johannes Brahms)
No.2 in D minor: Allegro non assai – Vivace (Orchestr.: Johan Andreas Hallén)
No.3 in F major: Allegretto (Orchestr.: Johannes Brahms)
No.4 in F sharp minor: Poco sostenuto – Vivace (Orchestr.: Paul Juon)
No. 5 in G minor: Allegro – Vivace (Orchestr.: Martin Schmeling)
No.6 in D major: Vivace (Orchestr.: Martin Schmeling)
No.7 in F major: Allegretto – Vivo (Orchestr.: Martin Schmeling)
No.8 in A minor: Presto (Orchestr.: Hans Gál)
No.9 in E minor: Allegro ma non troppo (Orchestr.: Hans Gál)
No. 10 in F major: Presto (Orchestr.: Johannes Brahms)
No. 11 in D minor: Poco Andante (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No. 12 in D minor: Presto (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No. 13 in D major: Andantino grazioso – Vivace (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No. 14 in D minor: Un poco Andante (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No. 15 in B flat major: Allegretto grazioso (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No.16 in F major: Con moto (Orchestr.: Albert Parlow)
No. 17 in F sharp minor: Andantino – Vivace (Orchestr.: Antonín Dvořák)
No. 18 in D major: Molto vivace (Orchestr.: Antonín Dvořák)
No. 19 in B minor: Allegretto (Orchestr.: Antonín Dvořák)
No. 20 in E minor: Poco Allegretto – Vivace (Orchestr.: Antonín Dvořák)
No.21 in E minor: Vivace (Orchestr.: Antonín Dvořák)

There is a special relationship, running right through the work of Brahms, between his style of composition for orchestra and his style of composition for piano. While for some composers – Berlioz is an extreme example – the colours and timbres of the instruments of the orchestra constitute an integral factor in their musical invention, Brahms belongs to the opposing school, in that the piano, his own instrument, was always at the root of his musical conceptions. He ‘thought’, so to speak, pianistically. On the other hand, as early as 1853, when he was only twenty, his works for piano impressed Robert Schumann as “veiled symphonies”: that is to say, they have a power which demands in some respects the apparatus of a symphony orchestra for realization. This inherent tension affected his entire output, so that his work in each medium benefits to some extent from the pull exerted by the other. It is the less surprising, therefore, that several of his works lead a double existence, of which it is impossible to say that either version is “only” an arrangement of the other, and listeners are entirely free to decide which they prefer.

The Hungarian Dances are one such work. Brahms published them as piano duets in two sets (nos. 1–10 in 1869 and nos. 11–21 in 1880). But they owe their real fame – and they are among his most popular works – to the orchestral versions, in which the music reveals its brilliance more fully than in the piano versions. This is due not simply to the greater variety of colour which an instrumental ensemble gives, but also to specific effects which are inevitably more subdued on the piano: the typical string tremolos, for example, the rapid crescendos and diminuendos, or the rhythmic accents which are an important characteristic of the Hungarian idiom. The ancestor of these works of Brahms is not, of course, real Hungarian folk music: it was not until the early twentieth century that that became the subject of serious study, by Bartók, Kodály and others. Rather the line of descent is from the captivating sound-world of gypsy music, through the music of Haydn’s and Schubert’s day, where it had become a favourite means of colouration with the tag “alla ungarese”. The idiom of that ancestry, though symphonically stylized, remains audible not only in the sound of Brahms’s dances but also in the atmosphere. They vary in mood between high-spirited vitality and melancholia. For the most part Brahms used existing gypsy melodies, which he had collected since his youth, but a few are his own invention. The first set, nos. 1–10, has on the whole the livelier tunes, while melancholy is more prevalent in the second set. The music owes much of its unique character to the agogic fluctuations, the switch from restraint to explosive energy, the alternation of mounting tension and relaxation. At the same time the score permits, indeed, it demands a great degree of creative freedom from interpreters; ever new melodies and motivic relationships succeed each other in continually changing lights, which makes every performance of the Hungarian Dances a tour de force of musicianship.

Volker Scherliess

Variationer för orkester

Variations on a Theme by J. Haydn (‘St Anthony’) Op. 56a

Chorale St Antoni: Andante
1. Poco più animato
2. Più vivace
3. Con moto
4. Andante con moto
5. Vivace
6. Vivace
7. Grazioso
8. Presto non troppo
Finale: Andante

It was not until the second half of the last century that self-contained orchestral variations began to emerge, Brahms showing the way with his Op.56. For him it was an almost predestined move. Since his earliest days he had been interested in the form, examples including several sets for keyboard, on for instance themes by Schumann, Handel and Paganini, not to mention the slow movement of his String Sextet in B flat.

What fired Brahms to write the present variations was his being shown by C.F.Pohl (Haydn’s 19th century biographer) an open-air suite or Feldpartita in B flat, attributed to Haydn and scored for wind band. Its second movement in particular caught his fancy, one based on a pilgrim’s hymn from the Burgenland (between Austria and Hungary), known as the Chorale St Antoni. Three years later, during the summer of 1873, Brahms set to work on the theme, deriving from it two parallel sets of variations, one for piano duet, one for full orchestra. By then, with his first symphony on the stocks, he felt confident of doing himself justice in a wholly orchestral composition.

The theme’s wind-band origin is stressed from the outset, although Brahms replaced Haydn’s serpent by a double-bassoon with pizzicato cellos and basses in support. It is in two repeated sections of ten and nineteen bars and contains prominent features which are to be subsequently exploited. These are the close-lying course of the tune; its dotted rhythm; its harmonisation in sixths; its studied two-in-a-bar pulse; the uneven five-bar length of the first phrase, and the insistent emphasis upon the tonic note of B flat at the end of the second.

From those materials Brahms fashioned a strictly constructed and perenially vivid series of orchestral character studies. There are eight variations, concluding with a Passacaglia. This culminates in a powerful coda, reintroducing a fortissimo version of the original theme.

Christopher Grier (1989)

Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

Chorale St. Antoni
Variation I: Poco pù animato
Variation II: Più vivace
Variation III: Con moto
Variation IV: Andante con moto
Variation V: Vivace
Variation VI: Vivace
Variation VII: Grazioso
Variation VIII: Presto non troppo

Brahms’s affinity for the variation form was manifest in his earliest works for piano solo, and variations run through his chamber music as well; it is hardly surprising that in 1873 he chose this form for the first orchestral work of his maturity, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. He found the theme in the second movement of an unpublished divertimento in B flat, one of a set of six such works attributed to Haydn which that composer’s biographer Carl Ferdinand Pohl brought to his attention in 1870. The movement bore the heading “Chorale St. Antoni”, and it was assumed that Haydn had taken the theme from an old Austrian hymn.

After World War II some scholars suggested that the divertimentos in question were composed not by Haydn but by his pupil Ignaz Pleyel; others, supporting Haydn’s authorship but maintaining that the theme Brahms took for his variations was in any case a borrowed one, wanted to rename the work Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale. In any event, the theme was tailor-made for variation treatment, and Brahms put it through a sequence of eight especially brilliant episodes, showcasing virtually every section of the orchestra and capped by a finale that is majestic and expansive in feeling yet remarkably concise in its actual proportions.

Richard Freed


Akademische Festouvertüre, Op. 80

In less than a half-dozen years Brahms followed the Haydn Variations with his first two symphonies and his Violin Concerto, and the success of those work s gave him a stature that the University of Breslau recognized in March 1879 with an honorary doctorate. By way of acknowledgement, he composed a brief and unabashedly good-humored overture on student songs. Indeed, even the ceremonial title of the piece – Akademische Festouvertüre – might be regarded as part of his mischievous reaction to being cited in the doctoral award as “Artis musicae severioris in Germania nunc princeps”.

There is nothing “academic” about this overture, which might serve, however, as a textbook example of how to draw rich colors from simple sources without distorting either the intrinsic character of the material or the concept of symphonic design. This merry potpourri of German student songs – those cited being “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (We have built a stately house), “Der Landesvater” (Father of the land) and the freshmen’s song “Was kommt dort von der Höh’” (What cometh from on high?), which resembles “The Farmer in the Dell” – calls for the largest orchestra Brahms ever employed, and at the end its full might is felt in a suitably jubilant statement of “Gaudeamus igitur”.

Brahms did not attend the degree ceremony, but went to Breslau to conduct the premiere of his overture on January 4, 1881. The performance in the same concert of his contemporaneous Tragic Overture, which had been introduced in Vienna nine days earlier, no doubt served to balance the jocular effect of its companion piece and preserve academic respectability.

Richard Freed