Dancing with Brahms

Program Notes for February 9, 2019 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Opus 16

Brahms in about 1855

Brahms was young and in love when he began composing the second Serenade in 1858. His long, close relationship with Clara Schumann, wife and then widow of Brahms’ musical godfather Robert Schumann, was in the process of resolving itself into a loving friendship that continued to the end of Clara’s life. (What it had been before Brahms made it clear, after Robert’s death in 1856, that he could not or would not marry Clara is an issue that has kept biographers, not to mention psychoanalysts, busy ever since.)

Clara Schumann in 1859

At any rate, freed of the expectation of marriage to Clara, Brahms proceeded to become engaged to Agathe von Siebold, a dark-haired professor’s daughter with a lovely soprano voice.  Clara retained enough romantic feeling for Brahms to be jealous when she observed the pair embracing: “He left me alone with words of love and devotion, and now he falls for this girl because she has a pretty voice.” (At the time, Clara was 39 to Brahms’ 25, with seven children aged four to seventeen; Agathe was 23.)

Agathe von Siebold

But Clara seemed to put aside her resentment when Brahms sent her three movements of the Serenade on her birthday. She critiqued the work as carefully and as generously as she ever had. About the central “Adagio” movement, she wrote to him, “I cannot find the words to express the joy it has given me….  I can only imagine something beautiful, as though I were gazing at each filament of a lovely, rare flower: it is most beautiful!” When the Serenade was published, Brahms dedicated it to Clara. She even made a private arrangement of it for solo piano which remained known only to specialists until it was finally published in 2012.

Brahms composed the Serenade during two fall/winter seasons he spent at the court of Prince Leopold III in Detmold, Germany.

Leopold III of Detmold

Here he served as piano teacher, court pianist, and conductor of the court’s women’s chorus. Clara Schumann had previously held the post of piano teacher there and had recommended Brahms as her successor. Brahms’ compositions up to this point had consisted mainly of works for piano and for voices. But his mentor Robert Schumann had declared publicly in 1853 that Brahms would be the next Beethoven, so the European musical world was expecting a symphony from him, a prospect which terrified the young composer. “You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” he wrote. The court appointment in Detmold temporarily relieved some of that pressure and also put Brahms in proximity to an excellent orchestra for the first time. The second Serenade is the first of his works to have been conceived at the outset with the sound of an orchestra in mind. Brahms had two other orchestral pieces in the works at this time, but the first Serenade in D Major (Opus 11) started as a piece for wind ensemble, and the first piano concerto (Opus 15) began as a sonata for two pianos.

The instrumental serenade had developed in the 18th century as a form of light music designed to be played in the background for social gatherings and meals. It was a hybrid of chamber and orchestral music with the older suites of courtly dances. It contained anywhere from three to ten movements and often used unusual combinations of instruments. The great examples of the form, well known to Brahms, were the serenades, divertimenti, and “night music” of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Hummel. Brahms’ orchestration is quite unusual: two flutes, piccolo (used only in the finale), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, violas, cellos, and basses (no violins). Brahms never wrote another composition for this particular combination. The wind and brass parts form an independent ensemble to which strings are added for contrast and counterpoint. The thematic lead is always in the winds, with violas and cellos often doubled in response.

Scroll down to “Johannes Brahms” and listen to short audio samples of the main themes in each of the five movements. Go here for an analysis with notated themes: Click on the front cover image, then scroll down to view pages 135-138.

Uncharacteristically, Brahms composed the second Serenade practically in one go. He wrote, “I felt absolutely blissful while working. I have rarely composed with such exhilaration — the music flowed so sweetly and gently inside me that I was filled with joy through and through.” This lightness of spirit is clearly audible in the dancelike passages of the Serenade: in the fast Czech-influenced cross-rhythms of the second-movement “Scherzo,” with its waltzing trio section; in the “Quasi menuetto” fourth movement, absolutely undanceable (at least as a minuet — is this a Brahmsian joke?) because of its duple meter; and in the exuberant march of the finale. The middle-movement “Adagio” is much more serious, constructed in the archaic form of a passacaglia, a set of variations (eight in this instance) over a reiterated bass figure.

The work was first performed in 1860 in Brahms’ home town of Hamburg, with the composer conducting. Its early reception was mixed, but Brahms revised and published it both in the orchestral version and in an arrangement for piano, four hands. “Too long for an overture and too short for a symphony” and later regarded as a negligible “practice piece” for the later symphonies, it struggled to find a place on concert programs. But in the age of recorded and broadcast music, it has found an appreciative audience on its own very considerable merits.

Before the Serenade was completed in 1859, Brahms got cold feet about his impending marriage to Agathe, and the engagement was broken off. Agathe fled her home in Göttingen to become a governess in Ireland, and she and Brahms never met again. Five years later, he seems to have felt remorse over his treatment of her, for he encoded her name in the pitches of a climactic passage in his second string sextet. Eventually Agathe married happily. Brahms never married at all.

Liebeslieder Walzer (Lovesong Waltzes), Opus 52

Eleven years passed. Brahms still hadn’t written the long-expected symphony, but he was gaining a favorable reputation with the public for his songs and for his piano, chamber, and choral music, especially Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). And he was in love again, although not for the first time since his broken engagement to Agathe von Siebold. The Liebeslieder are settings of translations and imitations of folk poetry, mostly Russian, Polish, and Magyar, from a collection called Polydora by Georg Friedrich Daumer. Their main subjects are the raptures and despairs of love. Brahms’ settings appear to have been written for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie, who was eight or nine years old when Brahms first met the Schumanns as a young admirer of the older composer. By the time Julie was sixteen or seventeen, Brahms had developed amorous feelings for her.

Julie Schumann

(Yes, you remember correctly — he had first been in love with her mother Clara!) Brahms’ emotional relationships with women were many and complicated. Some, as with Agathe, were brief infatuations; some were lifelong, as with Clara; some led to proposals; none led to marriage. (Seth Houston, in his dissertation on the Liebeslieder, resorted to a spreadsheet to keep them all straight.)

“Brahms and waltzes!” marveled the music critic Eduard Hanslick. “The two words stare at each other in positive amazement on the elegant title-page. The earnest, silent Brahms…North German, Protestant…unworldly…writing waltzes! There is only one word that solves the enigma, and that is…Vienna!”

The “elegant title page”

Brahms had been spending his winters in Vienna since 1862, and he finally moved there permanently in 1869, the year he wrote the Liebeslieder. Vienna was southern, cosmopolitan, Catholic, influenced by Italy, famous for its musical flowering in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The waltz was quintessentially Viennese, a combination of dance form and musical composition, the symbol of a gay and elegant age. It was established as a genre by the Strauss family and became an international phenomenon.


Video of a Viennese waltz

Brahms had composed a set of sixteen waltzes in 1865 (Opus 39) for piano, four hands.  He had just finished editing a set of Schubert’s Ländler, an older type of Viennese dance, also in triple time. Ländler typically moved at a slower pace than the headlong waltz, and Brahms’ waltzes are slower, too. The Opus 52 Liebeslieder are specifically marked “Im Ländler-tempo.”


The ländler scene from “The Sound of Music”

Brahms had edited a second set of Schubert ländler in 1869, just before starting to compose his Liebeslieder, and he contemplated editing yet another group in 1872, which precipitated his Neue Liebeslieder (Opus 65). Although Brahms called them “trifles” when writing to his publisher, the Liebeslieder are very artful in their structure and thematic writing, far from glib or formulaic. Brahms was a great admirer of the “waltz king,” Johann Strauss II, and Opus 52 no. 9 alludes to Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz, both in its text (“On Danube’s border”) and in some of its musical details.

Brahms and the “Waltz King” in 1884

Brahms called all of his song collections “bouquets,” and he took great care in ordering them and in the relationships of the keys and moods of the individual pieces. He did acknowledge after publication of Opus 52 that he’d made a mistake with No. 3, that it should have been in A rather than in B-flat. The eighteen songs are designed to be performed either in their entirety or as two sets of nine or three sets of six, if desired. If the latter option is chosen, then the order of the second set is switched to 10-11-12-7-8-9 to keep No. 9 as a conclusion. Brahms felt so strongly about the ordering of his “bouquets” that when a literary compilation of all his song texts was assembled, he insisted that the poems be published in performance order, not grouped by their authors as the editor preferred. Brahms labelled Opus 52 a “piano duet with voices ad libitum,” indicating that the piano parts could stand alone. In 1870 he even made an orchestral suite incorporating eight of the Opus 52 Liebeslieder. The voice parts in the original were intended for a solo quartet of singers. The Viennese middle class, with its love of musical entertainments, was rapidly expanding in Brahms’ day.  The vocal-quartet form was very popular for larger domestic gatherings, convivial salon evenings used as venues for amateur singing and playing. Today, the Liebeslieder are well served by the sonority and power of the modern piano, balanced by a small chorus, and they remain one of his most-performed compositions.

After the relaxed, almost effortless feeling of Opus 52, there came a great change.  Brahms apparently never overtly declared his feelings for Julie Schumann, yet he was devastated when he learned that she was engaged to an Italian nobleman, Count Victor Radicati Marmorito. Incredulous, Clara wrote in her diary, “Did he [Brahms] really love her?  But he has never thought of marrying and Julie has never had any inclination toward him.” His response to this crushing disappointment was the great, anguished Alto Rhapsody (Opus 53), which Brahms called “a bridal song for the Countess Schumann, but with rage do I write such things — with anger!” After three years of marriage and two children, Julie died at age 27 of tuberculosis. As Clara Schumann was Brahms’ first love, Julie was his last. From a slender, smooth-cheeked youth with a high-pitched voice, he aged into a gruff, portly curmudgeon with a bristling beard, redolent of cigars and brandy.

Brahms in 1889

Clara Schumann died of a stroke in 1896. Brahms was stricken down with grief and survived her by less than a year.