Brahms Essay

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Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Daniel Jung

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg to a Lutheran family, and spent much of his professional life in Vienna. He is grouped with J.S Bach and Beethoven to be one of the ‘three Bs’. Brahms was a virtuoso pianist, and premiered many of his own works – many of the pieces that he composed for the piano were written to match his standards. He was extremely skilled at counterpoint, and used a lot of counterpoint to ‘honour’ the ‘purity’ of the structure of counterpoint and to advance them into a romantic idiom, to create new bold approaches to harmony and melody. Brahms also had a conservative approach towards music, his music firmly being in the roots of the baroque and classical styles. But also he used novel ensemble types and new Eastern-European folk music, of which the fourth movement of his second string quintet is an example of.

The second string quintet in G major was published in 1980. Brahms had troubles writing string ensemble music, destroying many of them before publication, but after his success of his string sextet in the 1850s, he adopted the string quintet, writing the piano quintet and two string quintets. The quintet is scored for two violins, two violas and a cello, which is an unusual combination. The piece provides a good example of Brahms’ style – it contains a complex sonata form in the first movement, and the final fourth movement portraying a Austrian-Hungarian dance influenced by the Czardas. This piece is also in cyclic form.

The first movement, allegro non troppo, is in sonata form, but contains two long transition sections where Brahms develops his musical ideas. Brahms included material in the movement from his planned fifth symphony, but was never released. The main theme of the exposition features a rising arpeggio theme in G major in the cello, which is then accompanied by light tremolo in the violins and the violas. The music then modulates to D major, where a three note motif which is a reminiscent of a Viennese waltz is heard in the violins, before spreading to the rest of the quintet. In the development, the music modulates into Bb major, after an unexpected cadence at the end of the exposition. Throughout the development, Brahms develops the rising motif theme from the exposition with the tremolo accompaniment to produce new material. The recapitulation also begins unexpectedly, with the first subject from the exposition beginning on the beat of the bar, rather than as an upbeat like in the exposition. The first movement concludes with a codetta finishing abruptly in the home key of G major.

The second movement, adagio, is a theme and four variations, which was Brahms’s favourite form. The whole movement is rooted in D minor, with the theme beginning in the first viola accompanied by the second viola, and a pizzicato inverted arpeggio theme in the cello part, which links to the first movement, which is an example of cyclic form – this links the Beethoven, of whom he was greatly inspired by. In the first variation, the melody is passed onto the first violin, with the pizzicato accompaniment played by the second viola. Brahms also gives a heavier texture in this variation to give a sense of growth. In the second variation, the inverted pizzicato arpeggio part which was first introduced in the theme is dissected as the first viola and the cello share this figure. Towards the end, all the parts break into triplets, before reaching to an extreme pitch range at the end of the variation. The third variation incorporates cross rhythms, with the re-appearance of motifs from the first movement in the violins and modified accompaniment parts played by the violas and cello. The final variation reverts back to the beginning theme, but the melody is played by the first violin, which creates a texture that is similar, but also different to the theme. The movement ends with a unexpected D major chord.

The third movement, un poco allegretto, is a...
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