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In the final years of his life, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) did a lot of conscious summing up, gathering seeming ephemera such as his canons and folk song arrangements for publication. Although he considered himself retired as a composer, he did create a select group of autumnal masterpieces: new chamber music featuring the clarinet, four groups of short piano pieces (some of which may have been composed earlier), and eleven chorale preludes for the organ.
Much of this music is fraught with a sense of mortality, not surprising as Brahms suffered the loss of close friends and family in these years. The four Klavierstücke, Op. 119 – composed at the spa town of Bad Ischl, Brahms’ summer home-away-from-home, in 1893 – are melancholic in the main, but shot through with warm light and they rise to playfulness and close with steely determination. “It really is marvelous how things pour from him; it is wonderful how he combines passion and tenderness in the smallest of spaces,” Clara Schumann wrote in her diary after receiving the Op. 118 and 119 pieces from Brahms.
Like Beethoven’s Arietta variations, these pieces seem to progress in animation, though they end in defiance rather than transcendence. The first Intermezzo, a poignant Adagio in B minor, is obsessed with descending thirds. “Every bar, every note, must sound as in a ritardando, as if one would like to imbibe melancholy from each single passage,” Brahms wrote to Clara. In the second Intermezzo, Brahms transforms an agitated, rhythmically insistent E-minor theme into a lyrical E-major waltz in the middle section. The last of Brahms’ Intermezzos is a fleet, cheerful scherzo in bright C major, playing games with meter and inner voices. The concluding Rhapsody is a robust and complex piece that begins in affirmative E-flat major and takes some curious and diverse byways before the main theme returns, only to be deflected into a ferocious coda in E-flat minor.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.