Slow moments with SW: Brahms – balm for the soul

Brahms in about 1853

A new series this, to help you through these difficult times. Music is a great source of consolation and hope and, for me, some of the greatest music which offers both those qualities is to be found in Brahms’ slow movements (yes, I can hear you saying ‘but what about Bach/Beethoven/Haydn/Mozart?’ and I agree, but one has to start somewhere…).

Brahms is in my mind particularly because I have recently been looking at Hans Keller’s programme notes on some of the composer’s works. As ever, he gets straight to the point: here he is on the Brahms Violin Concerto’s Adagio in a programme note written for the Prom concert given on 30thJuly 1971. Ida Haendel was the soloist and the New Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

He composed the first draft at his favourite summer resort of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee in Carinthia where, he once said, ‘so many melodies fly about one must take care not to tread on them’.

Soon after this first draft was finished in the summer of 1876, however, Brahms had second thoughts about the two central movements. He came to the conclusion that they were ’failures’, and wrote to Joachim that he had composed a ‘feeble Adagio’ to take their place. What Joachim thought when he first came upon the wonderful slow movement can only be imagined….

… A short four-part chord for bassoons and horns introduces the ‘feeble Adagio’, which opens with one of the most haunting melodies in romantic music. Played by the oboe, it is never given to the violinist, who is mainly concerned with weaving elaborate embroidery on the principal theme in close partnership with the oboist, particularly after the more florid middle section. Brahms was adversely criticised at the time for making a member of the orchestra more prominent than the principal soloist, but Joachim no doubt recognised that it was done to significant musical purpose.

Here’s Itzhak Perleman’s take:

“Haunting” – an excellent choice of adjective to encapsulate the character of so much of Brahms’ slow music. The Andante of the Second Piano Concerto also illustrates this perfectly and takes a similar approach to the Violin Concerto in that the opening ‘cello solo (surely one of the great masterstrokes in all his music and always makes me wish I’d learned to play the ‘cello rather than the violin) is also never taken up by the piano. The piano responds using Brahms’ favourite cross-rhythms and gentle arpeggiated, musing, figurations. A stormy middle section ensues before calm is restored at the end this time with the piano in conversation with the cello’s repeated opening theme. The sense of peace engendered is heart-rending.

Where next? How about the Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 for violin and cello which was Brahms’ last orchestral piece and composed in the summer of 1887 for the cellist Robert Haussmann and Joseph Joachim (with whom he had hoped to mend the rift which had grown up between them). The Andante’s glorious soaring opening theme, played by the cello and violin in octaves and full of Brahms’ lyrical richness is one of my favourites of his melodies, utterly typical of him and, I always think, must be deeply satisfying to play.  Once again, I wish I’d been a cellist…here are Joshua Bell and Stephen Isserlis on magnificent form clearly relishing every note.


Those are just three examples – all from Brahms’ orchestral works but there are many more to explore of course: try the Adagio from the G major Violin Sonata, op. 78 or that of the F major ‘Cello Sonata, op. 99 (in F sharp major – about as far away as you can get from F major!), the Andante of the B flat major String Quartet, op. 67 or the Romanze: poco adagio from the String Quartet in C minor, op. 51 no.1 (8 minutes or so of sheer beauty and one of my absolute favourites). Here are the Jerusalem Quartet giving the most wonderful performance.

Next in this mini-series will be Haydn. In the meantime, go well, stay healthy.


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1 Response to Slow moments with SW: Brahms – balm for the soul

  1. Pingback: Slow moments with SW: Haydn – sublime repose | MusiCB3 Blog

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