Why is Brahms’s Op. 76 cycle so seldom played?

The next three posts are about Brahms’s cycle of Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76. Published in 1879, it marked a beginning and an end for Brahms: the end of a hiatus in writing for piano solo and the beginning of Brahms’s new style of writing for piano, where cycles of small miniatures supplanted the earlier monumental works, such as the three sonatas and the Handel Variations. 

But although this magnificent cycle is so significant for Brahms’s piano output, it is quite seldom played, definitely compared to his other piano works. Is this because the eight short pieces are wedged between iconic works such as the D major symphony (Op. 73), the violin concerto (Op. 77), and the G major violin sonata (Op. 78) on the opus number abacus? Or is there something in the pieces themselves that does not fully correspond to our collective idea of Brahms, not unlike the way in which a great many works by Beethoven do not correspond to our (flawed) collective notion of Beethoven? If it is the former, I would simply point out the inauspicious place of the Op. 76 cycle among its titanic neighbors, and leave it at that. If it is the latter, and I suspect that it may well be, I will try to put my finger on some of the qualities of this cycle that set it apart from the rest of Brahms’s piano output. 

The eight movements of the cycle are divided into four capriccios and four intermezzi. Brahms gives us only a vague indication of character in these titles, a vagueness that carries well into the music. The first movement, a Capriccio in F-sharp minor marked Poco agitato, contains a particular blend of mournfulness and relentlessness. Its poignant melody seems at times to be contradicted by the implacable flow of sixteenth notes. But before we even get to the main melody, we come across the main oddity of this movement. The dynamic climax comes in the ninth bar, where the dominant is reached, in a gushing figure played by both hands marked fortissimo, with a crescendo hairpin from the dominant to a sforzando three bars later in the most exposed moment of the movement (and probably of the whole cycle as well): a minor second (C-sharp and D) in the right hand, with nothing below it in the left hand. Following this “open wound” of a minor second, the dynamic range remains suppressed for the rest of the Capriccio, and indeed for most of the cycle, which will prove to be meaningful in the later movements. Although Brahms, in his later piano works, did write ambiguous openings (in Opp. 118 and 119), this dynamic imbalance is unique to Op. 76. It keeps the listener wondering whether or not it will be matched or superseded by a dynamic high point somewhere else in the movement. Brahms showed us the pistol in the first act; will he fire it in the third? He doesn’t, and therefore leaves us in an eerie state of suspense, even as the F-sharp minor Capriccio ends with an idyllic passage in F-sharp major. 

What follows is the best known movement of the cycle, the B minor Capriccio. It is played from time to time as an encore piece, and has been recorded in a stellar performance by Bartók. It is the absolute antithesis of the first movement: it doesn’t have an introduction, its theme is simple and catchy, its form is clear, and it is reminiscent of Brahms’s “Hungarian” style, with some resemblance to Schubert’s Mélodie hongroise in the same key. Rather than struggle with a dynamic imbalance, the B minor Capriccio is entirely comfortable in its own skin, not having any marking above mezzopiano. But most important, it fully corresponds to our idea of Brahms. This brings to mind a critique of Mozart’s Dissonance quartet by a 19th century German theorist, Gottfried Weber, who had trouble coming to terms with its irksome opening, declaring “I know what I like in my Mozart.” The B minor Capriccio dutifully contains in it that which we “like in our Brahms.” 

The first two Capriccios, being tonally related, form the first “episode” of the piece. Their balance between the tumultuous and the serene is a key component of the greatness of this cycle. The playfulness and intimacy of the second movement is the reason that the first, in its unsettledness, is so powerful, and vice versa. The natural comparison that arises upon hearing this cycle magnifies the effect of the individual movements. Proportion and natural comparison is a concept that all great composers were aware of and adhered to. In Beethoven’s Op. 18/6 quartet, for example, the reason the tonally adventurous introduction to the last movement is so effective is that it is answered by the merry and dancelike section that follows it. Even such a jarring piece as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique would not be as jarring if the tolling of the bells in the finale were not balanced by the tender and mirthful second movement, and the unmatchable harmonic waywardness of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is masterfully complemented by entirely diatonic writing, for example, in Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s resplendent love duet in the Prologue to the first act. This, after all, corresponds to what is perhaps the main precept of tonality: tension-resolution. 

After this first episode, however, Brahms takes the music in an entirely different direction. In next week’s entry, which deals with the following three movements, I will begin by discussing something I can attribute only to Brahms. 

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