Brahms’s Op. 76 cycle: An entangled ending to an entangled story

Anyone who wishes to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony without hearing any applause between the third movement and the mournful finale should probably look for a studio recording, as applauding after the third movement has become an established tradition, so much so that one finds it hard to imagine the beginning of the Adagio lamentoso preceded by silence (or even by the usual coughing). The reason for the applause is obvious: the ending of the third movement is ecstatic, and is exactly what we expect from the ending of a finale. It is far more rapturous and triumphant than the finales of many symphonies, making applause all but inevitable. Someone hearing this symphony for the first time is likely to wonder how Tchaikovsky would go on to the actual finale, having finished the previous movement on such a forceful note. If we take this effect and reduce it to a much smaller scale, and replace the well-engraved concept of the symphony with the more abstract concept of a cycle for piano, we find that Tchaikovsky’s arch-nemesis Brahms did something similar after the fifth movement of the Op. 76 cycle. Unless the pianist makes a special effort in gesticulation, no applause should follow the fifth movement of Op. 76. But given its fiery ending, the suspense that follows isn’t too dissimilar to the tension between the last two movements of the Pathetique Symphony (minus the applause, of course). 

The ensuing movement is a lyrical intermezzo in A major, marked Andante con moto. It breaks with the character of its predecessor, but still keeps a common thread with it. Tonally, it is quite close to the fifth movement, which is in C-sharp minor (incidentally, the last two movements of the Pathetique Symphony have the same key relation, G major to B minor), but unlike the previous movement, it has a clear A-B-A structure, and is tender and nostalgic, continuing the “idle” thread that started with the third movement. As in much of Brahms’s idle music, the idleness stems from a quality not necessarily idle. In the case of the sixth movement of Op. 76, that quality is repetitiveness. This movement is based on a simple rhythmic unit of two beats, with triplets in the right hand against a syncopated left hand, repeating itself throughout the A section. By contrast, the middle section, in the relative minor key of F-sharp minor, has a long lyrical line in eighth notes in the right hand with the triplets moved to the left hand. The middle section is probably the closest in character that Brahms comes in this cycle to Chopin, whose works he was studying when writing Op. 76. The idleness of this movement shows itself clearly in comparison with another intermezzo by Brahms, in A major, which has a nearly identical tonal structure and form: the famous second movement from the Op. 118 cycle (written in 1893, at the same time as the Pathetique Symphony, and fourteen years after Op. 76). In the first four bars of the A major intermezzo from Op. 118, we hear great variety in rhythm and articulation, with longer half notes followed by dotted eighth notes. This variety continues throughout the movement, making it anything but idle. But this is not the case in the A major intermezzo from Op. 76. Here, we have far simpler rhythmic and melodic units that repeat themselves, in a manner similar to Schubert. But while we almost expect to hear such writing in Schubert, we don’t expect it in Brahms. 

The idea of idleness through repetitiveness continues in the next movement, an intermezzo in A minor, marked Moderato semplice. Unlike in the previous intermezzo, the middle section of the seventh movement isn’t as distinct and contrasting, making the music even more repetitive. But in the A minor intermezzo, we hear something we haven’t heard since the first movement: solemnness. Even in the first movement, the doleful qualities of the melody are combined with the rustling sixteenth notes beneath it, whereas in the A minor intermezzo, that doesn’t happen. There is, however, another aspect to this almost-mournful movement, and that is its penultimate place in the cycle. Going from gloom to triumph is one of the most common qualities of the classical repertoire. It changes from genre to genre, but it is prevalent across many types of works. In sonatas, penultimate movements can take many shapes and forms, but in variation cycles, the penultimate variation is nearly always a gateway to the character of the finale. This doesn’t necessarily mean a variation in minor, it can also be a slow and cantabile variation in major. Prime examples of this are found in many cycles by Beethoven in his earlier period, such as the ones for cello and piano. The A minor intermezzo, although not a variation, fulfills the role of a penultimate variation. Its hitherto unheard sorrow yearns for an emotional release that can be reached only in a more cheerful finale. By writing a “typically penultimate” movement, Brahms found a way out of the structural quandary of the C-sharp minor capriccio and its forceful ending: the mournful qualities of the seventh movement will prepare the character of a fitting finale to this wayward cycle. 

Does the final movement, a C major capriccio marked Grazioso ed un poco vivace. Anmutig lebhaft, bring the music to a climax or an anticlimax? Which thread does it follow, the idle or the active? The answer is both. It combines elements from both threads, and places them in the context of a dancelike movement, but not in the manner of Chopin, who, one might say was born dancing at the piano, but rather like Schumann, whose magic comes from attempting to dance and usually not being able to, without some distraction or rhythmic uncertainty. Just like the seventh movement introduces dolefulness not heard since the first movement, the finale introduces dancelike qualities not heard since the second. Although the C major capriccio is not an idle movement, it contains the intimacy and grace of the third and fourth movements. Likewise, although it is entirely different from the first and fifth movements, the implacable quality of these movements is still present in the finale. The quality that binds all these threads together and makes the finale so great is humor. Not the outgoing humor of Haydn and Beethoven, or the sarcastic humor of Shostakovich, but rather the intimate and diffident humor of Schumann, whose piano works Brahms was also studying while writing this cycle. It is the humor found in a dancelike movement that cannot decide whether it dances in two or in three, a quality typically Schumannesque, and the humor of unlikely melodic lines in imitation whose main attribute is their strangeness and their exaggeratedness. It is a quality of cartoon-like charm, found often in music but maybe even oftener in works of literature, such as Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt or Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England

As a final movement, this capriccio must contend with the fifth movement and its imposing ending. Brahms solves this puzzle in the most subtle of ways. Like the fifth movement, which abates before striking with its last fiery gesture, the finale too has a sense of the “calm before the storm,” except that in this movement it isn’t quite a storm. Nevertheless, the gesture is unmistakably similar, a gradual calming of the music after its climax (marked only forte this time, unlike the fortissimo in the fifth movement), leading to two bars marked più Adagio, out of which the final gesture of the whole cycle erupts. And what better way of expressing the cartoonish charm of the finale than having the last gesture be a Jacob’s Ladder of imitation that produces the most awkward dissonances, which sound like wrong notes even if played accurately…  

What makes this masterful cycle unique is that it contains radical changes in rhetoric and big structural statements, but on a much smaller scale. It breaks with Brahms’s earlier piano works, many of which are characterized by their grandeur, and foretells some of Brahms’s later writing for piano. Brahms’s last four cycles for piano, Opp. 116-119, all of which consist of miniatures, often defy conventions of structure and rhetoric, like in the limping lullaby that is the first movement of Op. 117. That seed was planted in Op. 76. All this doesn’t fully correspond to the idea of “the Brahms we know.” Paul Badura-Skoda pointed out that Brahms’s most widely discussed works are the first piano concerto, the German Requiem, and the first symphony. All three works are antithetical to Op. 76. They are large in scope and bold in manner. But there is one aspect to Op. 76 which is most quintessentially Brahmsian. 

This cycle is the ultimate anti-programmatic work. Unlike Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, and even Chopin, many of whose works were accompanied by extramusical ideas, Brahms was somewhat averse to programmatic music, in a century musically defined by works such as Pictures at an Exhibition, Zarathustra, and the New World Symphony. In the midst of all these great programmatic works, Brahms found an almost materialistic oasis of self-describing music. Unhindered by any extramusical ideas, Brahms’s Op. 76 cycle finds its own path, writes its own plot, and declares its own endings. And that is precisely what we love so much about Brahms. 

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