February 2018 Brahms' Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 1


Johannes Brahms – Rhapsody Op. 79 No.1 

            Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) led a very interesting, though often solitary, life – though he fell in love, he never married. He studied music early on, beginning piano under the tutelage of his father. By age 11 he was composing, and by 14 formally performing for the public. In his travels, Brahms was exposed to Hungarian gypsy music. The folk idioms and instrumental timbres of the gypsies made a big impression on the young composer who often incorporated them into his music. Pieces of music reflecting the characteristics and styles of countries other than one’s own are  known as exotic music. The German-born Brahms’ took very well to Hungarian musical styles and excelled at taking the folk melodies and transforming them into Western European style art music. One of his most famous exotic pieces is the Hungarian Dance No. 5 written for orchestra.

            Brahms’ talent brought him opportunities to meet the greatest composers and musicians of the day including two esteemed violinists, Eduard Remenyi and Joseph Joachim, the flamboyant Franz Liszt, as well as Clara and Robert Schumann.

            Brahms took a natural affinity to the Schumann’s, becoming a true member of their family in the greatest of ways. So endeared were the three that, upon Robert’s death, Brahms, for a time, became head of household, helping Clara to raise her many children and maintain financial stability. Clara and Brahms remained close friends to the end of their lives.

            Brahms did not resonate with the musical styles of the ever-ostentatious Liszt and the most forward-looking romantics. His conservatism ranked him as a “neoclassical” composer. Brahms greatly respected and revered Classical Era styles. Critics of the time hailed Brahms’ music as old and antiquated, but Brahms was not daunted by the critics.

            The composer revered Classical Era forms and composers, and, yet, was a man of his time. He combined the styles of the past and the present by setting his rich harmonies and emotionally dramatic music in the formal structures of Mozart and Haydn. For example, while some romantic composers were writing program music depicting specific poems or stories, or creating music full of virtuosic power, Brahms was still composing sonatas. These sonatas, however, differed greatly from those written in the Classical Era. Their harmonic structures, dramatic melodies, and exoticism are, without question, highly romantic in nature. The form may have been ‘antiquated’, but the content was pure romanticism.

Listening as an Event

Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 2

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcgOp-2T05A

        Brahms was a child prodigy on the piano and his repertoire for the instrument attests to this! It is challenging, orchestral in nature, often laden with thick, chordal textures, and overlaid with passionate and formidable melodies. Brahms uses traditional tonalities, constructs, and forms while opening the gates of emotional power. None will doubt the romanticism of his Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, No. 1 and 2, melding fast, aggressive, and almost thunderous sections with incredibly delicate, gentle, lyrical episodes, side-by-side.

            The rhapsody originated in Greece as an epic tale – not a small tale, but something grand, intense, heroic, and boldly ambitious. In music, rhapsodies are not nearly as long as sonatas, yet run the gamut of human emotion, as though telling the story of a hero, or a great struggle between good and evil, all in its few pages. The music reflects the different chapters of the tale, some fast and aggressive, others angry; still other parts sad, happy, and/or filled with longing. Unlike the Classical Era sonata form, teeming with formal rules and procedures, the musical rhapsody was a true product of the Romantic Era. It was a free-form piece giving the composer license to compose with his or her personal whim. The pieces are emotionally intense and emit an improvised sensation.

            As you listen to the Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 1, note its epic drama – and its formal composition! Despite being a Romantic Era rhapsody, Brahms weaves in a more formal structure similar to that of a Classical Era sonata: two themes are introduced; they develop and change keys, and then return in their original form, concluding with a succinct ending, thus forming an ABA piece with coda modeled after what was called sonata allegro form in the Classical Era.

             Rhapsody, Op. 79, No. 1 is written in b minor and spans a good 8.5 minutes. It begins with a powerful agitato, the rhythm driving the energy relentlessly forward.  The piece begins with a grand gesture, powerful and driving only to calm down to inward trepidation by 0:21 seconds! Listen for the bombastic section with thick, chordal textures (1:11), followed by a return of the main theme at 1:55, which leads to a bold climax at 2:20. At 4:08 to 5:04 the music, though generally major in tonality, fluctuates in and out of minor, giving the sense of foreboding or the end of a gentle reverie.

            Before you listen, make sure you have adequate time to hear the whole piece…while doing nothing else! Just as you would get lost in a great movie or story, allow the tale of this rhapsody to whisk you out of the here and now and take you, for a short time, into a new space and time.

            Did you experience all the mood changes? It is almost like full scenery changes in a movie!  If you have the time, listen again and jot down some words describing these mood shifts, like agitated, reflective, innocent, or reminiscent. If you wish, ask someone else to join you! Share the piece with a parent of a friend and have them create a list of descriptive words. You can compare the results.



Brasch, C. (1888). Brahms mid career [Digital image]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Brahms#/media/File:Johannes_Brahms_portrait.jpg

Greenberg, R. Great masters: Brahms—his life and music. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia. Lectures 1 – 8. 2002a. CD.