The Art of Ruth Slenczynska VI

A Commentary

Bunsho Mifune
Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76, Two Rhapsodies Op. 79

These piano pieces were composed in 1878 when Johannes Brahms was 45 years old. It is some 15 years since he offered Paganini Variations Op. 35 (in 1863, 30 years old) and Waltz Piano Suite Op. 39 (in 1865). Having settled down in Vienna at the age of 38, he held a supervisory position of Musikverein. So he built a successful career in the society. Because the publication of his Hungarian Dance (when he was 36 years old) became a huge hit, it offered him financial security. As an official composer he went off on concert tours during winter and concentrated on composing in summer, i.e. he led a fulfilling life.
Brahms finished his Symphony No.1 in 1876 (just two years before these piano pieces). Having fulfilled one big assignment, the fact that he was relieved of a burden might have influenced on his style of creation. On his composition initiative the emphasis moved from formal and rigorous structure to rather free expression of lyrical beauty what wells up in his heart. Especially he had a very good time at Po¨rtschach along the Lake Wo¨rthersee (near today’s Slovenia, former Yugoslavia) where he spent holidays three summers from 1877 to 1879. It is the birthplace of his Symphony No. 2 Op. 73 (1877) where tranquil lake, forest and mountains bring together wonderful harmony. Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76, Violin Concerto Op. 77, Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 78 and Two Rhapsodies Op. 79 – these series of his masterpieces have a common atmosphere: mature technique of composition on one hand, you would be impressed with melancholic and dignified way of lyre and his enthusiastic passion, on the other hand.
Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76 was published in 2 volumes, containing 4 pieces in each. And there are 4 Capriccio and 4 Intermezzo pieces. These names are also used for his series of short pieces composed in his later years. It is Robert Schumann who named for the first time his piano pieces Intermezzo that provide romantic, fantastic and unhappy atmosphere. Works by German Romantic composers often bear the title of Intermezzo when their feeling of a music piece cannot be expressed in concrete words. On the other hand, they used to express active, enthusiastic and cheerful spirit by means of the title Capriccio. Brahms did not agree with putting such a title by nature. It was impossible of him to have taken the initiative. However, he might have no alternative but to let an acceptable title put due to the pressing request of the publisher. Having reorganized and edited the complete works of Robert Schumann together with Clara in 1878, getting involved in Chopin’s complete works, traveling in Italy with a friend of his, Theodor Billroth a surgeon, – all of his accumulated experience influenced these eight piano pieces considerably.
“The piano pieces in F sharp minor you sent to me in September 1871 has brought such unfailing great delight! Though it is terribly hard, it is truly wonderful. Being filled with dusky melancholy, my heart is sometimes brightened up and is sad the other time as I play it upon the piano.” (A letter from Clara Schumann to Brahms on 6th July 1877) According to this letter the first piano piece was composed much earlier than other seven. “Amid heightened anxiety” – these words are written at the beginning of it.
The second Capriccio in B minor is probably one of the most popular piano works by Brahms.
Two Rhapsodies Op. 79, also composed at Po¨rtschach in 1879, shows an apotheosis of Brahms’ piano works. Balanced framework, a large scale filled with energy, melody and tonal colors are dramatic and rich, quite fantastic enthusiasm, and so on – all the possible worlds of what one piano instrument could express are compacted to the Two Rhapsodies.

Seven Fantasies Op. 116, Three Intermezzi Op. 117, Six Piano Pieces Op. 118, Four Piano Pieces Op. 119

They say that all of above 20 piano pieces (Op. 116- Op. 119) were composed around 1872 when Brahms had 59 years old. His life reached the peak some years before it. The Emperor of Austria bestowed a Leopold decoration upon him. His hometown Hamburg City, which had been indifferent about him in his youth, made Brahms an honorary citizen. Thus, it was the crowning glory of his career in the society. Symphony No. 4, Violoncello Sonata No. 2, Violin Sonata No. 2, No. 3, Concerto for Violin and Cello – these masterpieces had been already composed between 1885 and 1888. But he suddenly became aware of his declining ability after he had completed String Quintet No. 2 in 1890. He made up his mind to set an emotional closure of his composition. Therefore, he drew up his last will and testament in 1891 when he finished putting everything around him in order. However, the performance by clarinetist Mu¨hlfeld moved him so much in March 1891, and the refreshed creative urge welled up again. The two famous Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet were created in the same year.
Brahms loved going to Bad Ischl for the summer, where he stayed until summer 1896, just before one year of his death. These Twenty Piano Pieces (Op. 116- 119) were composed there in the summer 1892. Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, who had been one of his sympathetic friends, died in the first half of 1892. (Two Rhapsodies Op. 79 is dedicated to her.) His elder sister Elise also passed away. A sense of loneliness must have driven him into the shadows of his last stage of life, for Brahms was single. On the other hand, there was a discord between Clara Schumann and him on the reprint of Schumann’s Symphony in D minor in 1891. (Clara was already 72 years old at that time.) Because Brahms was willing to be reconciled with her, both of them restored a close relationship each other again. At dusk of their lives the setting sun casted tranquil and warm light.
Revived afflatus of composing, the change of his various human relationships – perhaps they provided great stimulus to the birth of these piano pieces, so precious like pearls. There are many traits of character in common: Committing himself to fatalistic resignation, he expressed in a very transparent frame of mind. Notes are simple and exquisite, and his elegant technique became even more polished. The Romantic composers are deeply connected with poems and literature, for they gave considerable emphasis to spiritual emotions and feelings. Therefore, piano works by Brahms show the mature accomplish of the Romantic music.

Seven Fantasies Op.116: Brahms wrote to Clara at the beginning of 1892, “I sent you a small series of piano pieces.” According to this letter some pieces might have been already written down before. It is not clear why they are divided into two parts. (Part I./ 1st – 3rd, Part II./ 4th – 7th ) The title is named as Fantasies, Brahms wrote up the fourth as Nocturne, and some melody-patterns are similar to that of Chopin – we could develop our imagination in relation with Chopin.

Three Intermezzi Op.117: From “Lullaby of an unhappy mother” (folk songs) by German poet Herders two lines are quoted to the first piece as follows: “Sleep softly, my child, sleep gently and beautifully! Your crying makes me heartache.” Brahms named it ‘my sorrowful lullaby.’
Clara Schumann came to know these pieces in October 1892. They say she often played them upon the piano until the last year of her life.

Six Piano Pieces Op.118, Four Piano Pieces Op.119: These pieces are as if he reflected on his whole lifetime. They are truly rich and beautiful, and their framework is well-thought-through (introduction, development, turn and conclusion). In those days Clara advanced in the years of old age rapidly. Brahms sent her friendly greetings more often. Especially he made his sincere efforts to show her first his newly composed works. Op. 119 is called ‘A gem piece between you and me.’ He visited her family in October 1895 after a long absence and stayed an overnight. Next morning Clara played upon the piano the fifth piece Romance (Op. 118). (Afterwards Clara passed away. Thus it became his last chance to listen to her performance.) Considering these historical facts, a larger part of them should have been composed, previously anticipated her performance. Brahms came to meet Clara Schumann by chance of the piano, with which he lived the majority of his years with Clara. It seems to me that eternal memories with her are sown in these piano pieces. Does my assumption rush to the conclusion?
As for the first piece Intermezzo in B minor Op. 119, Brahms bestowed it as a 74-year birthday gift toward Clara (7th May 1893). He specially annotated as follows: “Play in such a way so that each tone could remain behind. Each tone should draw loneliness.” Clara Schumann, responding to it, expressed her impression, “Very lonely but sweet piece, filled with disharmony. Though it is clouded like a grey pearl, it is very precious.” Super technique is required of the fourth piece Rhapsody in E flat major Op. 119, compared with Op. 79 that has the same title. Here Brahms glows with pride both his craftsmanship with ultrahigh technique and talent of a great artist. He would like to say, “Even though I am in years of old age being withered and melancholic, it is yet always possible for me to set a high mountain difficult to climb over!”

Translator Kiyoko Kruzliak

The Art of Ruth Slenczynska VI

─ Brahms Piano Works
June 12th – 14th, 2009 Liu Mifune Art Ensemble
Steinway made in 1926 in Liu Mifune Art Ensemble
Ruth Slenczynska (Piano)


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