Brahms: 6 piano pieces op. 118

- by Håkon Austbø

The Brahms cycles for piano are conceived as larger entities rather than as separate character pieces. Jonathan Dunsby makes this point very clearly in his discussion of op. 116, which he calls a “multi-piece” [1] This opus represents a tonal unity since it starts and ends in d minor. In op. 118, the tonal coherence is less apparent. Ex. 1 shows, however, how the tonalities of the cycle move by whole-tone steps from A to Eb:

Two of the tonal centres are shared by two pieces, the remaining two pieces, nos 3 and 6, being sole tenants of their respective step on this ladder. The descent is felt particularly strongly passing from nos. 3 to 4, where a g minor triad, sounding nakedly alone after the accompaniment has died away (senza Pedale), is followed by an F minor triad in exactly the same position, that commences the fourth piece. The first piece starts in c rather than in a minor, a tonality that it never reaches, resolving finally to A major to announce no. 2.

Not only does the descent of tonality reflect the main motif that is heard at the beginning of the cycle - the descending three notes a, extended to four - but together with the secondary tonalities a pattern emerges that contains the main melodic motif, a2, which is a permutation of the same three notes and generates the theme of no. 2. [2]

As ex. 2 shows, all the material in the six pieces originates from the opening of the first piece.

In this diagram, one can see that the two root motives, a and b, together form the intervals of a third motif c. a1 and a2 are permutations of a. a2 is the base of the second piece, here followed by a3, a stretched-out version of a2, where the ascending third has become a seventh. However, if read within the same octave, one finds back the three consecutive pitches of the original motif a. The principal connections of these motives across the pieces are shown with lines of different colours.

The motif b is a purely rhythmical one. One can ask whether a single note may constitute a musical material, but in this case the dotted half-note is always followed by a quarter rest. Seeing the octave e in bar 2 as a single note rather than the continuation of the preceding three, indeed has consequences for the performance. It is the only satisfactory solution for this first Intermezzo. Trying to join  the two voices into one line makes no sense since the E’s in the lower voice sound one octave lower than the three octaves in the top voice. This polyphony is clarified in the diagram and remains through most of the piece.

The coupling of the dotted note with the rest following it becomes mandatory when one examines the texture of the enigmatic no. 4. This piece, perhaps the biggest challenge for the performer, can only be understood in the context of the whole cycle. It is a canon from the first bar to the last, based on the material from nos. 1 and 2. I would call it a double rhythmic canon. I use this term, known from Messiaen and the serialists, to indicate that Brahms was far ahead of his time. [3] The various stages of the canon are shown in ex. 3.

The double canon in the beginning (a) is also melodic for the b motif (here with diminished values compared to no. 1, but not really since we are in 2/4), although the pitches c-c-f-g hardly sound melodic but makes one think of Webern. The second canon, in triplets, is rhythmic only, although starting off as an inverted melodic canon. When the first canon disappears at bar 17 (b), this contrary motion becomes more audible.

It is the passage starting at bar 52 (c) that really points to Webern. The nakedness of the texture, the role of the rests, the learned, uncompromising texture and the stumbling, indecisive character indeed point to another style than that associated with Romanticism. Here, the use of the pedal must be very scarce in order not to disturb the double canon and to allow the rests to be heard; an almost impossible challenge. Leaving the pedal unchanged during two bars here is tempting but inadmissible.

At bar 91 (d) one is brutally awakened from this unsettling dream by a dramatic outburst that reintroduces the motif a2 in the rhythm of no. 2, still in canon, before the recapitulation of the first canon, now in forte, più agitato. The canon maintains its grip on the texture until the very end (e) but slows down in the last 5 bars by stretching the distance between entries from half a bar to a whole bar.

This last part of the F minor Intermezzo is the dramatic climax of the cycle, although the middle part of no. 6 reaches a sinister power of another order. Since no. 4 doesn’t really have its own themes but takes it material from the preceding pieces and treats it in canon etc., one could consider it a sort of central development to the cycle.

Along the same line of thought, the Romanze in F Major (no. 5) should then be the recapitulation. In fact, the themes from no. 1 and no. 2 are both restated simultaneously here. The upper voice takes on a similar rhythm as in no. 1 (see ex. 2), albeit that it starts on the first beat. The lower voice starts with a rising sixth in upbeat, then follow three statements of motif a2, in inversion here but still evoking the theme of no. 2, also including the theme of the dramatic outburst in no. 4 mentioned above (d of ex. 3). Follows a bar based on the motif c: the rising fourth followed by a descent.

Remains the motif b, which may be seen in the three repeated c’s in bar 4. Already, the repetition of the single-note motif was introduced in the initial canon of no. 4, and even if the rests are omitted here, the articulation produces much the same effect. After a varied statement of the double theme, the situation is reversed in bar 9, with the upper voice becoming lower and vice versa. This use of reversible counterpoint is remarkable in such a lyrical piece, whose D major middle section brings us even further into euphoria. But something strange happens here: in bar 24, then in bar 32, a strange voice enters in the tenor: E-D-C#, the latter forming major seventh on the resolving D major triad, coming from a Lydian second degree harmony. The explanation lies in another flashback to no. 2, where the same pitches are heard in the bass, bar 47-48, and restated in the end of the piece. Here, they quite logically fit into an A major cadence, but they find their origin in bar 1-2 of the piece: c#-b-a, whose inversion has here been retrograded. The inversion had already been used at bar 35-36 (see ex. 2 for details).

With all this, the Romanze provides a relief from the drama of no. 4, whereas in no. 6, an affect of intensified darkness returns.

The theme of no. 6 sums up all the combinations of three notes heard in the previous pieces, as if wanting to try out all of them, and ends with the descent a, this time placed rhythmically like in no. 1: upbeat – accent – resolution, as far from the tonality of A as possible. The three notes are now heard in their factual modal setting: minor second followed by major second, whereas in no. 1, the second note, normally a b natural, is made into Bb to suggest an F major tonality, which lasts four bars. In the opening of the eb minor Intermezzo therefore, we have the feeling of coming home, but to a shattered and burnt-out house. Only in the end, after having passed by Bb minor and Gb major, do we get the conclusive cadence in the main tonality:

The three last eb minor chords seem to push out the despair while vanishing into darkness. In fact, they reflect the extension of the single note motif b1 that we saw in no. 5. They are heard as a conclusion to the descending line and on the same pitch. The two conflicting motives of the cycle are brought together, but this brings no comfort.

I have not yet mentioned no. 3, the Ballade in g minor. Its theme consists of the motif a in the rhythm of the second piece, first ascending, then descending. The middle section in the unexpected lighting of B major, alternates ascending fragments with thirds from a2. These rising and falling movements reflect a struggle that Brahms hints at with the tempo indication Allegro energico. It is an attempt to defy the negative forces, a struggle that is doomed to fail, which happens at bar 108:

The fortissimo is always reserved by Brahms for places of special importance. From here, the g minor chords become like guards at the gate of the underworld, while taking on the shape of the motif b, appearing again at a significant place in the cycle, and before appearing in the haunting canon of no. 4, discussed above. Nos 3 and 4 thus represent a dramatic center of a cycle which encompasses a whole life of human emotion, Brahms looking back on his life with extreme sorrow.

Seminar on Brahms op. 118 on oct.16th, 2013.

- Håkon Austbø in dialogue with Olaf Eggestad

[1] Jonathan Dunsby: The multi-piece in Brahms: Fantasien op. 116, in Brahms – biographical, documentary and analytical studies. Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp 167-189. [back]

[2] See also Andrea Bonatta: Johannes Brahms Das Klavierwerk. Edition Sturzflüge, Bolzano, p. 265 [back]

[3] Schönberg discusses this at length in the essay Brahms the Progressive, but doesn’t mention the piano pieces here. Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea. Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, p. 52 ff. [back]

Brahms Op. 118 script

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