Keeping silent in order to speak better:
Brahms and the piano
Four pieces, four very diverse genres, three pianos. Just as in a prism, the image of an elusive composer such as Brahms is brought to converge. Starting with a Scherzo, reaching the youthful Dances, getting to one of the most elaborated cycles of the nineteenth-century variation form, until the last collection, closing a piano catalogue among the most arduous and indecipherable of… Well, when one gets here, things become hard. Of Romanticism? Of late Romanticism? Or of modernity?
This is the strange fate of this great composer and book collector. He was so silent and so little inclined to intimacy, that he prompted entire genealogies of composers, critics and historians to try and enroll him in their ranks: from Hanslick to Schoenberg, from Nietzsche to Mahler.
Loving what is unexpressed is certainly not the simple praise of obscurity or of a character’s severity, although these were very strong elements in Brahms’ personality. The unexpressed is the fact that often, when facing his scores, the interference of diverse elements (which, though hinged on a peerless harmonic fantasy, seem to move by themselves) creates islands of tension. They let themselves never be resolved, just as happens with his diabolic taste for rhythmical intersections, or with his ease in finding very powerful melodic forms, digging into the listener’s memory. Therefore, even the Scherzo form is divided into (at least) six sections, whilst the Sonata surrounding it probably disappears. The Variation form hybridizes itself with the Fugue. Modality intersects with tonal language in the Rhapsody which closes the composer’s relationship with solo piano, in a very intimate – and therefore wordless – journal. Wordless, or perhaps with the only words of an ironic apostle of Romanticism, who was paradoxically closer to the generation before him (Schumann) and to that after him (Mahler).
This programme covers Brahms’ entire piano output, from the first to the last piece: the Scherzo op. 4, three youthful Dances posthumously published, the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel op. 24, and the Klavierstücke op. 119.
The Scherzo in E-flat minor op. 4 is the first piano work written by Brahms (Hamburg, May 7th, 1822 – Vienna, April 3rd, 1897). From his autograph catalogue preserved in Vienna, we know that Brahms wrote this piece at age eighteen in his native home in Hamburg, during the month of August 1851. Along with Joachim and Liszt, the Schumann couple also expressed admiration for young Brahms’ talent. This led Robert to write the famous article Neue Bahnen, and to put in a good word with Breitkopf & Härtel, who published the piece with a dedication to Ernst Ferdinand Wenze (1808-1880), together with the C-major Piano Sonata no. 1 op. 1 and the Sechs Gesänge op. 3, on November 22nd, 1853. “Many artists do master an impressive technique”, wrote Schumann, “but few can translate the composer’s intentions in such a convincing fashion as Brahms can do, or follow like him the flight of Beethoven’s genius revealing it in its full splendour”.
The Scherzo op. 4 in fact reveals the young composer’s interest in the tradition of the classical world. Brahms precociously developed his mastery of the Scherzo form: this can be noted not only in this piece, but also in the Scherzos of his piano Sonatas. His op. 4, in any case, remains the only example in which Brahms employs the model of Scherzo with two contrasting Trios, as was commonly used by Schumann. This piece is frequently likened to Chopin’s second Scherzo thanks to their very similar beginnings. However, at that time Brahms knew neither Chopin nor his works. The uncommon and rather complex key of E-flat minor seems to be symbolic: Brahms would close his Rhapsody op. 119 no. 4 (his last solo piano piece and the last piece in this album) in the same key.
As we know from his correspondence with Joachim, in March 1856 the composer began to show interest in the Variation form. “In order to write variations, it is indispensable to choose a theme whose bass has a solid weight. This is in fact one’s true guidance and what controls fantasy”. In the following years he wrote some Variations, but he finished his Variations on a Theme by Handel op. 24 only in September 1861. He dedicated them to Clara Schumann, with whom he had by then a deep and affectionate bond, on the occasion of her forty-second birthday, following Robert’s death in 1856. Clara premiered them in Hamburg on December 7th, 1861. “Johannes wrote some beautiful things, and some Variations that properly delighted me, full of genius as they are. There is a final fugue combining skill with inspiration in such a manner that I seldom saw its equal”, she wrote to her daughter Marie in a letter of November 3rd, 1861. “They are frightfully difficult, but I nearly learnt them. They are dedicated to a dear friend, and you can imagine my joy in knowing that he thought of me while he was writing these wonderful variations”.
In April 1862, Breitkopf & Härtel issued them in Leipzig as op. 24, and Brahms performed them for the first time on November 29th, 1862, in his first public recital in Vienna. From the formal viewpoint, his ambition is clearly to build a wide-ranging architecture with a Baroque inspiration. The Fugue, canonic and imitative techniques, dance movements such as the Siciliana are all elements superbly mastered by the composer. “One sees what one can still do in the old forms when somebody comes who knows how to treat them”, said Richard Wagner in 1864, upon listening to the Variations op. 24 performed by their very composer. This compliment, uttered by the main exponent of the New German current, who supported the idea of a continuing progress and of the constant renewal of musical grammar, expresses very well the contemporaries’ viewpoint on Brahms’ music. In fact, he was frequently indicated as the antagonist of Wagner’s “music of the future”, and had been elected as the conservatives’ patriarch by critic Eduard Hanslick.
One would have to wait until 1933, with the publication of the essay “Brahms the progressive” by Arnold Schoenberg, to get a new interpretation of Brahms’ style. Schoenberg would highlight the modernity of his language and of his deformations of the harmonic space, thus contributing to the eradication of an image of Brahms as solely bound to tradition and uncapable of looking forward to the future.
During the summer months of 1892 and 1893, in the peace of Ischl, Austria, Brahms wrote four collections of piano pieces. In the preceding years, he had abandoned the composition of solo piano pieces, favouring chamber, symphonic and vocal music. In his last years (he would die in Vienna on April 3rd, 1897), the composer came back to his instrument, through the use of small forms. His publisher, Friedrich August Simrock, would have favoured a more captivating name on the titlepage, but Brahms was inflexible: “I suppose that no other [name] remains than ‘Piano Pieces’!”. Therefore, the pieces were printed between December 5th and 12th with the name of Klavierstücke. Op. 119 is composed of three Intermezzi, which are as many poetic and intimate miniatures, “full of the most wonderful effects”, as Clara wrote, and whereby Brahms expresses his timbral sensitivity in full. Hanslick, the critic who was also Brahms’ friend, defined them as “monologues led by Brahms with himself and for himself in his lonely evenings, in his contemptuous pessimistic rebellion, in his meditative elucubrations, in his romantic reminiscences, at times in his dreamy melancholy”. The collection closes with the Rhapsody in E-flat major, a typically free, rhapsodic, improvvisative piece, a “rough and crude” one (as Brahms defined it in a letter to Clara). It finishes in the “parallel” minor key: the same rare key of E-flat minor which he had employed in his Scherzo op. 4, whose echo one may seemingly hear in its impetuous and heroic character.
In this album, three short youthful dances were added, with the purpose of juxtaposing to three celebrated monuments (op. 4, op. 24 and op. 119) a less performed and lesser-known repertoire. These small pearls also represent a homage to the theme of the rediscovery of forms and practices of the past. This is an always current and fundamental subject of study when one investigates Brahms’ formation. Between the late 1850s and the early 60s, Brahms dedicated himself to an intense work as a self-taught musician, studying canonic techniques and Baroque-style dances. This period is well documented, because a great part of the most relevant material is preserved in Brahms’ correspondence with Joachim. In March 1856, the two friends even undertook an exchange of exercises: “Double counterpoint, canons, fugues, preludes, whatever” – in other words, a Notenkorrespondenz. We do not know about Brahms’ intentions: whether these works constituted merely a component of his self-teaching project regarding the forms of the past, or whether he wished to collect these movements with the purpose of publishing them. Certainly, we can see here a re-elaboration of his style through a harmonically flowing language, with a clear disparity between Baroque and nineteenth-century sensitivities. The idea that he wished to gather these works in an all-encompassing opus is suggested by a passage from Clara’s diary, on September 12th, 1855: “Johannes surprised me with a Prelude and Air for his A-minor Suite, which is complete by now”. The Prelude and Air are now lost, just as, probably, Brahms’ interest in the A-minor Suite did fade. Instead, even though they remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime, the two Sarabandas were first published in 1917, the two Gigues in the 1927 Gesamtausgabe, and the two Gavottes were rediscovered by Robert Pascall in a Vienna archive only in 1976. It is fascinating to discover what Brahms did, in the course of his lifetime, with the material he had left aside. Some dances were reworked and inserted in his later pieces, undergoing substantial modifications. His Gavotte no. 1 reappears in the Scherzo of his G-major String Sextet op. 36 (1864-5), his Sarabande no. 1 in the slow movement of his B-minor Quintet for Clarinet and Strings op.115 (1891). Moreover, the second movement of the String Quintet in F-major op. 88 (1882) is the re-composition of two Baroque dances of the 1850s, defined by Brahms as “music scores of my youth”. The A section is based on the Sarabande no. 1, and the B section draws from Gavotte no. 2.
Brahms and the historical pianos
Three historical pianos were employed for the recording of this album. The most fascinating aspect of these pianos lies in their timbral variety, different from the acoustic standardization of modern pianos. Romantic instruments, like their forerunners between the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, are very different from each other, and each has a unique voice and a personality of its own. By juxtaposing a repertoire to its original instrument, one obtains a more knowledgeable exploration of musical language, of coeval aesthetics, and of a composer’s poetics.
The chosen instruments were built in the same decade, between 1871 and 1879, i.e. at the time of the apex of Brahms’ career. However, they belong in very different worlds in terms of provenance as well as of building and timbral features. Indeed, in his entire life, Brahms played on a wide variety of pianos: from the beginnings of his career in the 1840s until his death at the end of the century, the world of the keyboard instruments was radically transformed. Models such as those used by Beethoven and Schubert became surpassed, and the building characteristics of modern pianos were reached.
Érard, Pleyel and Steinway are names resonating in the imagination of every piano lover, and of those passionate for the history of the piano. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Parisian musical world was the background of important technological innovations, and was dominated precisely by Érards and Pleyels. These instruments were destined to become the favourite ones of a long generation of pianists. During the 1850s and 1860s, Brahms knew well the instruments built by Érard in Paris; perhaps, his acquaintance with them happened at the Schumanns’. In 1858 Brahms renounced the performance of his First Piano Concerto op. 15 because the presence of “The Érard Grand Piano could not be guaranteed”. Among the various sources, it results that Brahms wrote to Clara in 1865 that he had played on “A beautiful Érard” in Zurich.
On the occasion of her triumphal concert tour in Vienna, Clara received an 1838 piano as a gift from Conrad Graf, one of the most famous piano builders of his time. Following the death of Robert Schumann and the arrival of the Érard in 1856, Clara presented it to Brahms. In turn, he bequeathed it to the Society of Music Friends in Vienna while he was still living. That piano had been shown at the Vienna Universal Exposition of 1873 along with the instruments owned by Mozart, Beethoven, and other famous composers. Today it is on exposition at the Hofburg Palace.
Brahms’ correspondence reveals us that this Graf is the instrument on which Brahms practised at the Schumanns’ in the early 1850s. On it – following Bozarth and Brady – he may have composed his Variations on a Theme by Handel op. 24, his Piano Quartets op. 25 and op. 26, his Piano Quintet op. 34, part of the Sonata op. 38 for piano and cello, as well as many pieces from the cycle of Die schöne Magelone op. 33. In comparison with the 1850s Érards, this instrument is more conservative as regards sounds and mechanics, and the keyboard’s range is of six and a half octaves.
As concerns the solo piano repertoire, Brahms certainly developed a predilection for these instruments, as is testified by his choice to buy a Streicher when he settled in Vienna in 1872. Brahms’ Streicher had been built in 1868 (no. 6713) and remained with him in his Vienna home until the end of his life. Now it exists no more, as it was destroyed during World War II. In a letter to Clara, Brahms wrote that “There [on my Streicher] I always know exactly what I write and why I write one way or another”.
Camilla Cai maintains that Brahms’ predilection for this kind of instruments underpins an interesting feature of his music, i.e. the exploration of the voices written for the medium/low register. On modern pianos, to obtain certain effects and to let the middle voice “sing” is a true challenge. There, in fact, this register tends to be out-of-focus and soft, covered by a rich bass and by a brilliant upper register. On nineteenth-century instruments, instead, the three principal registers are very different as concerns the quality of their sound and timbre, and they guarantee a peerless clarity and naturalness of performance. Indeed, most of the 19th-century pianos were straight-strung, like the Èrard and the Pleyel used for this disk, while on modern pianos the strings are crossed, like the Steinway & Sons on which I played the Klavierstücke op.119. In Cai’s words, “Brahms undoubtedly heard this middle area as the richest on the piano, and therefore chose to exploit it in his piano pieces”. One clearly deduces that, for his own use and for his solo piano scoring, Brahms had a specific preference for instrument with a limited sound power, and with the mechanic characteristics of the light Viennese pianos.
For his concerts, instead, he displayed a different criterium in his choice of the pianos. He favoured instruments corresponding to his time’s technological improvements, and he gave priority to the resolution of acoustic (rather than of timbral) problems. His intense international concert activity gave the composer the opportunity to try a wide range of European and American pianos (Klems, Trau, Lipp, Knabe, Ibach, Bachman, Mand, Jacobi, Blüthner, Th. Steinwegs), including some of the most advanced of the time, e.g. Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway & Sons. After having performed his Second Piano Concerto on a Bösendorfer in Budapest in 1881, he wrote to Julius Otto Grimm in order to ascertain that he would have a good instrument for a later performance in Stuttgart: “Would you be so kind as to ask in Cologne or elsewhere if somebody can send a Bechstein or a Steinway? I will gladly pay for the shipping costs. But I will no longer play on a questionable instrument”. The composer wrote also to Julius von Bernuth, the conductor of the Hamburg Concert, requesting “an excellent and powerful Bechstein” (or an American Steinway). From the perusal of Brady’s and Bozarth’s work it seems evident that Brahms favoured the technologically most advanced instruments of his time, and the correspondence is highlighted between the evolution in style of his piano music and the gradual changes in the keyboard instruments, thus reinforcing the “progressive” image of the composer from Hamburg.
By way of conclusion, let us cite once more from Camilla Cai: Playing on pianos from Brahms’ epoch “would allow the pianist to experience momentarily the world of sound as Brahms knew it and to reexamine these miniatures in a context close to their original one. The knowledge gained, if sensitively and thoughtfully applied, might bring forward lost aspects of the music and thus enrich our understanding of Brahms’ last piano pieces”.
Translation: Chiara Bertoglio
Born in Milan, Alice Baccalini carried out her piano studies at Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi, Milan, where she achieved her diploma, with top marks and honours, at the age of fifteen.
She then specialized first with Nune and Tatevik Hairapetian, then with Franco Scala at the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale Incontri col Maestro in Imola (2005-2009), with Lev Natochenny at the Hochschule fùr Musik in Frankfurt (2009-2011), with Elisso Virsaladze at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole (2012-2014) and with Nora Doallo at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiano in Lugano (2013-2015).
Thanks to the meeting with influential musicians sensitive to historically informed performance practice, Alice Baccalini developed a curiosity and passion for the performance of classical repertoire on original instruments. Today she studies in Stuttgart and is pursuing research in fortepiano and historical piano at the Musikhochschule, under the guidance of Stefania Neonato.
She has attended several masterclasses with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Paul Badura Skoda, Andrea Lucchesini, Gonzalo Soriano, Marcello Abbado, Cédric Pescia, Riccardo Risaliti, Zòltan Kocsis, Steven Spooner, Lylia Zilberstein, S.Accardo, Davide Cabassi, V. Sofronitsky.
Alice first played in public at the age of four and at ten made her début in Conservatorio G. Verdi in Milan with the Società dei Concerti. Since then she has carried out an intense solo and chamber music activity, which has led her to perform throughout Italy and Europe.
In November 2011 Alice won the first price in the XI international contest held by Società Umanitaria.
On the 31st December 2011 she was invited by Teatro La Scala to play E. Satie’s “Gymnopédie” on the occasion of the New Year’s Eve Galà of the Ballet Academy of the theatre.
Since 2011 Alice teaches piano at Scuola di Musica Cluster in Milan.
Alongside the concert activity, Alice founded the Association Marco Budano, a non-profit organisation with the goal of making music accessible to people excluded from society. The first initiative promoted by the association was the innovative “Brahms a Milano”, a project aiming to program the integral chamber music works of Johannes Brahms. All proceeds went to associations operating for social inclusion.
Alice is passionate to chamber music and in the past years she has had the opportunity to collaborate with distinguished musicians such as Mario Brunello, Lorenza Borrani, Pavel Vernikov, Pablo Hernan, Alexandra Soumm, Trio Boccherini, Quartetto Lyskamm, Luca Buratto, Giorgio Casati, Cecilia Ziano, Gabriele Carcano e Ursina Maria Braun.
Thanks to the shared passion for philological research, combined with the love and use of original instruments, in 2021 Alice founded Lumi Quintet - fortepiano and wings - together with Emiliano Rodolfi, Eduardo Beltrán, Elisa Bognetti and Michele Fattori.
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.