Brahms’s Op. 76 cycle: A study in idleness?

Some years ago, in a masterclass with the renowned American pianist and teacher Jerome Lowenthal, I played Rachmaninoff’s beautiful E-flat minor Étude-Tableaux Op. 39/5. After I finished playing, he pointed his finger at the first page and asked me: “Harmonically, what’s going on here?” Although I thought I was quite adept in harmony, I found myself scratching my head with intermittent “uh”s and “oh”s, until Mr. Lowenthal spread his hands and exclaimed “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! The poor guy just couldn’t modulate!” Of course, that isn’t true. Rachmaninoff could without any doubt modulate, as he does on the second page of this etude, but indeed the first page stays in the key of E-flat minor. Most important, it feels like it is grounded in the tonic key. 

Apart from some very powerful pedal points, like the one at the end of the third movement of the German Requiem, being harmonically grounded is hardly a quality we associate with Brahms. Rather, we tend to think of rich, daring, and fulfilling harmonic progressions. But the third movement of the Op. 76 cycle, an intermezzo in A-flat major, fully lives up to Mr. Lowenthal’s exclamation. Of course, Brahms does not stay only in A-flat major for the whole movement, as he does modulate to C minor in the seventh bar, and to the dominant too. Despite these modulations, however, it still feels like “the poor guy can’t modulate,” and by the end of the movement, we can’t recall too much action having taken place. 

What I just described above does not sound like the work of a particularly good composer, but more like ambient music one would expect to hear in a hotel lounge. But this is certainly not the case. So where does this movement’s quality lie? Let me put forward the following idea: this movement is a study in idleness. It is not because of the composer’s deficiencies that the music moves almost nowhere, but simply because it isn’t meant to move anywhere. Although we normally don’t associate such writing with Brahms, I actually think that he mastered the concept of music in stasis like no other composer has, and that he made it into a “special corner” of his. Think of the second movement of the F minor clarinet/viola sonata, Op. 120/1. Even though the harmonic writing contains some rather adventurous moments (not least the first bar, which doesn’t begin on a tonic chord), respite and stasis emanate from the music. Idleness can be of two sorts: either the qualities of the writing – harmony, rhythm, and melody – are static (as for example in the first movement of the Op. 119 piano cycle), or the character of the music implies stasis, by means of expressive markings, even when the writing doesn’t necessarily imply it (as in the second movement of the Op. 120/1 sonata). In the case of the A-flat major intermezzo, I think it is both. Besides the unwillingness to travel harmonically, both the melody and the rhythm greatly understate themselves. The rhythm is based either on slow syncopations, which when combined with the left hand accompaniment, produce a sense of total motionlessness, or on slow triplets that instead of appearing in groups of three, appear in groups of four, creating a sense of no direction, especially when combined with the slow syncopations that moved to the left hand. The serenity of the movement notwithstanding, we hear in it a radical shift in rhetoric, where stasis takes the place of movement. We are used to having the music be defined by where it goes; now it is defined by how it stays

The fourth movement, an intermezzo in B-flat major, is not quite as idle as its predecessor. Indeed, with its flow of sixteenth notes, it cannot be thought of as an idle movement at all. That said, Mr. Lowenthal’s exclamation is still pertinent to this movement because of one important element: avoidance of the tonic chord. In an almost teasing manner, Brahms begins the movement with a clear dominant, but gives us a clear tonic to complement it only in the very last bars. Now by 1879, circumventing the tonic chord was hardly a novelty. More than three decades earlier, Schumann, whose piano works Brahms was studying at the time he wrote this cycle, in the first movement of his monumental C major Fantasie for piano, avoided the tonic chord till the very end of the movement. Yet, there is one significant difference: the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie, marked Durchaus fantastich und leidenschaftlisch vorzutragen, although not being outright tragic, is enormously afflicted and conflicted. By contrast, the B-flat major intermezzo, marked Allegretto grazioso, is entirely content being in harmonic limbo. Thus, the mellowness of the previous intermezzo is present throughout this movement, despite being faster and more rhythmically active. 

Last week, I mentioned how the effectiveness of the first two movements is amplified by their own natural contrast. This couldn’t be any truer in the ensuing fifth movement, the C-sharp minor capriccio. The fifth movement is everything the previous two movements aren’t. It has tension at its very heart: it begins with a conflict between triple and double time, it abounds with subversive chromatic lines, and with every statement of the theme, the music becomes more and more unsettled, representing a sort of “descent into chaos.” It is as if Brahms declared, “away with this idleness!” Now, for the first time since the first movement, we have forte markings, and sforzando markings appear for the first time since the second movement. The tribulations of this movement reach their climax toward the end, when at last Brahms arrives at the much-desired C-sharp major, only to be acrimoniously undercut in a typically Schubertian manner by the recurrence of the original minor key, which wrests the music away from its brief epiphany in major to its raw and bitter ending in minor. The briefness of this epiphany is hinted at in Brahms’s dynamic markings: the bars in major are marked forte, while the minor ending is marked fortissimo, as if to give the bars in major a yearning and almost personal quality. 

These three movements are built on the foundations laid in the first two movements. The fifth movement can be seen as the combustion of the repressed unsettledness of the first movement, while the third and fourth movements continue the calmness introduced in the B minor capriccio.

A few questions arise regarding the development of this work. Following the slam-bang ending of the C-sharp minor capriccio, what will the eventual conclusion to the whole cycle be? Will it match its force or power, will it be eclipsed by it, or will it end on a completely different note? Can the mellow intermezzi get any mellower, or has Brahms reached the apex of idleness in the third movement? And will all these structural quandaries have their own apotheosis, in a typically Schumannesque manner? This is the question that looms over the last three movements of Op. 76. 

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