Brahms and his ‘nebulous garb of rhapsodies’ … Op 79

Elisabeth von HerzogenbergIf you’re looking for a Big Romantic Piece for a post-grade 8 level pianist, look no further. Brahms’  Rhapsody Op 79 No 2 has it all: a sweeping , dramatic opening, a beguiling, pleading second subject and a mysterious repeated triplet figure beneath which octaves tread stealthily, creating an atmosphere of suspense which builds to shattering climaxes. I’ve yet to find any teenager who didn’t love this piece and revel in its challenges.

Written in 1879 and dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, above left, who had been a pupil of Brahms, the piece is marked Molto passionato ma non troppo allegro, and opens with a distinctive technical feature where the LH crosses the RH to play notes in the melody, thus cleverly avoiding unevenness in the accompaniment.

Technically there are large chords and octave leaps, so hand-span is a consideration. Good independence of the fingers will also be needed.  It needs a bold approach, tempered by an appreciation of the mysterious, especially in those ppp passages where the music almost stands still in some sort of harmonic limbo, in spite of the ever-present, murmuring triplets.

Brahms’ musical fingerprints are all over the score, both by virtue of the texture and the harmonic language. Note also the typical, written-out rallentando as the note values gradually lengthen towards the end of the piece before the two final, defiant chords.

Brahms and Elisabeth corresponded most engagingly  about this rhapsody and its companion, Op 79 no 1 in B minor. Elisabeth wrote on February 4, 1880: ….‘But the fact that the G minor is my favourite does not make me insusceptible to the rugged beauty of the B minor with its very sweet trio. The way the trio theme is indicated beforehand  is quite wonderful. Indeed, the whole of this episode, with the right-hand triplets and the expressive basses, is another case where words are inadequate. One is so glad that the piece closes with that too, leaving the most impressive part uppermost in the mind…’ 

She goes on to write of  the pain of a sleepless night, then continues:

‘…. But at sight of the two much-admired pieces I forgot all my grief and pain, and greeted them like old friends. It is hard to believe that there ever was a time when I did not know them, so quickly does the barely acquired treasure become incorporated with the accumulation of long standing. Once known and loved, it is a possession for all time. And, indeed, these pieces seem to me beautiful beyond measure — more and more beautiful as I come to know their bends and turnings, their exquisite ebb and flow, which affects me so extraordinarily, especially in the G minor…’

Brahms subsequently wrote to say that he wished to dedicate the pieces to her. She replied on May 3rd, 1880:

My dear Friend, – what a charming surprise! For, in spite of your breathing from time to time of a kind intention to dedicate something to me, I never quite believed in it… and now you put me to shame by giving me just these two glorious pieces for my own. I need not dwell upon my great delight over the dedication. You know whether I love these pieces or not, and you know whether I am bound to be delighted or not at seeing my name flaunt itself on a production of your brain. So let me say simply thank you, though with all my heart. Elisabeth von Herzogenberg_2As to your inquiry, you know I am always most partial to the non-committal word ‘Klavierstücke’ just because it is non-committal; but probably that won’t do, in which case the name Rhapsodien is the best, I expect, although the clearly-defined form of both pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception of a rhapsody.
But it is practically a characteristic of these various designations that they have lost their true characteristics through application, so that they can be used for this or that at will, without many qualms…
Welcome, then, ye (to me) nameless ones, in your nebulous garb of rhapsodies!’

Welcome indeed.

The full text of the Brahms-Herzogenberg correspondence can be found here.



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