Brahms's early works are dominated by the piano, the instrument on which he, like most composers of the period, received his training. As both recitalist and composer he seemed from the start intent on transcending the virtuoso and salon traditions that dominated Europe in the 1830s and 40s.
The first group of piano works, opp.4, 2, 1 and 5, completed (in that order) between 1851 and 1853, display an impressive command of the kind of motivic development and large-scale structures Brahms studied in Bach and Beethoven, a talent for the thematic transformation and colouristic harmony of Liszt and Chopin, and a strongly poetic-literary inclination like that of Schumann. The first movement of the F minor Piano Sonata op.5 draws imaginatively on all these traditions: the sonata form is built by subjecting a concise motif to a series of metamorphoses and wide-ranging modulations, so that we seem to be hearing the ‘story’ of a theme. In the Scherzo op.4 Brahms sought to compensate for the inherently sectional nature of the form by forging close thematic interrelationships between the sections.
The slow movements of the three piano sonatas are character pieces, or songs without words. They reflect the predilection for folk materials also evident in Brahms's early lieder. The theme of the Andante of op.1 is ‘Verstohlen geht der Mond auf’, whose text Brahms reproduced under the notes and identified as ‘an old German Minnelied’ (though the melody is a recasting of one probably invented by Kretzschmer and Zuccalmaglio, the modern compilers of Brahms's source). The Andante theme of op.2 bears no words, but Brahms told his friend Dietrich that it was inspired by the text of the German Minnelied Mir ist leide. In op.5 both andantes are related to poems by C.O. Sternau, and portions of the movements may have been inspired by a folklike melody by Silcher, set to a text attributed to Wilhelm Hauff.
The slow movements of opp.1 and 2 are also significant for being Brahms's first mini-experiments in variation form; each consists of only a few variations on a short theme. Both themes also have a dialogic or call-and-response structure exploited with great freedom and imagination, as when near the end of the second variation in op.1, a laconic four-note motif in the middle register, in a homophonic choral style, is answered by a sprinkling of pianistic filigree from on high.
Brahms returned to variation form in the summer of 1854 for the more extended Variations on a Theme by Schumann op.9. Not surprisingly, the broad range of pianistic idioms owes much to Schumann's own works, to which there are also many allusions. The mood shifts dramatically among the 16 variations as a reflection of the two different personas implied in the music (‘Brahms’, slower, more meditative; ‘Kreisler’, faster, more impulsive) and made explicit in the autograph manuscript, where Brahms extended the double bars into either a ‘B’ or ‘Kr’.
Brahms's first set of smaller piano pieces, the Ballades op.10, share the interest in folk sources (the first is based on the Scottish ballad Edward) and Schumannesque style evident in the sonatas and op.9. A retrenchment sets in with the pairs of gavottes, gigues and sarabands that comprise woo3–5 and were probably intended as parts of complete suites in the manner of Bach. The A minor Saraband woo5 is an exquisite miniature in rounded binary form closely modelled on the analogous number in Bach's English Suite in G minor, and yet it shows how well Brahms could absorb the essence of Bach's structures into his own developing style.
The retrospective trend of the mid-1850s continues in four organ works (woo7–10), some of which originated in the course of Brahms's counterpoint exchange with Joachim. The Fugue in A minor (woo8), the gem of the group, is a masterful synthesis of Baroque and Romantic principles. A slow, highly chromatic subject undergoes strict contrapuntal treatment by inversion, augmentation, diminution and stretto, as it simultaneously embarks on remote harmonic journeys that could only have been charted in the mid-19th century. Also dating from this time is the masterly Chorale Prelude on the Passion chorale O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid (woo7), to which Brahms later added an imposing fugue.
The two sets of Variations in D (op.21 nos.1 and 2) from 1856–7 show that Beethovenian influences were beginning to temper Brahms's Romantic approach to this form. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (op.24), which look still further back into the musical past, are the supreme manifestation of this neo-classical or neo-baroque tendency. The composer himself valued this set highly, calling it his ‘Lieblingswerk’. Even Wagner, who heard Brahms play the variations in Vienna in 1862, is reported to have expressed admiration ‘for what may still be done with the old forms’. The Handel Variations take Bach's Goldberg and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations as the starting point for building a monumental and variegated structure upon a theme of the utmost simplicity, here the Air from Handel's suite in B. From the viewpoint of piano technique, the Handel Variations are the work of a composer who had for his time an exceptional understanding of earlier keyboard idioms.
The Schumann Variations op.23, based on a melody Schumann had written down not long before his suicide attempt, maintain a more restricted range of expression and character than the earlier op.9 set and as such may be said to partake of Brahms's neo-classicism of the 1860s. The final variation is a major-mode funeral march into which is ingeniously woven a return of the original theme.
By comparison with almost every other keyboard work of Brahms, the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (op.35) place an emphasis on extreme virtuosity. (Clara Schumann called them ‘witch variations’ and regretted they were beyond her capacity.) The more didactic nature of the set is suggested by its principal title: ‘Studies for the Piano’. As with the études of other great composers, however, including Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, technique is always allied with powerful and widely ranging musical expression.
A complete contrast to the variation sets is offered by the piano works of the 1860s based on popular genres. The exuberant set of 16 Waltzes op.39, written for piano four hands and adapted almost immediately for two hands, were composed in the spirit and on the scale of Schubert's dances, some of which (the Ländler d790) Brahms had recently edited for publication. Dedicated to Hanslick, the op.39 set also constitutes Brahms's affectionate tribute to the dance form most closely identified with his adopted city Vienna. These miniatures, mostly in rounded or recapitulating binary form, unfold a great variety of expression, from the propulsive style hongrois to Biedermeier sentimentality.
The 1860s also saw Brahms paying more concentrated homage to the gypsy style: in 1869 Simrock issued the first two of what were to be four books of Hungarian Dances for piano four hands woo1. (Brahms later arranged ten of the dances for solo piano and three for orchestra.) The dances are large-scale sectional works based mainly on pre-existing gypsy tunes, some of which Brahms may have known as early as 1853, when he toured with the violinist Ede Reményi. Brahms managed to combine folk and high art as effortlessly as he blended divergent historical periods in other works.
With the eight Klavierstücke op.76, mainly composed in 1878, Brahms entered the late phase of his writing for piano, dominated by shorter character pieces. This set alternates between works labelled ‘Capriccio’ and ‘Intermezzo’. The former tend to be faster (sometimes marked agitato), with continuous rhythmic motion; the latter are more lyrical, but with a melodic style that is economical rather than expansive.
The two Rhapsodies op.79 are Brahms's largest independent, single-movement piano works after the Scherzo op.4. Despite the implications of the title, both pieces have clear formal designs. On the largest scale, no.1 in B minor has a ternary form, while no.2 in G minor is in a fully fledged sonata form. The G minor Rhapsody begins with one of the most striking (and most analysed) gestures in all of Brahms's music, a kind of deceptive cadence in which deception comes not in the bass, which behaves properly (D–G), but in the melody, whose D–E resolution sends the piece spiralling off into a bold harmonic sequence.
Among the late collections opp.116–19, Brahms's last works for piano, the Fantasien op.116, dubbed a ‘multi-piece’ by one critic, have the strongest claim to be considered as a coherent whole because of thematic, harmonic and stylistic connections. The set, divided like op.76 between intermezzos and capriccios, begins and ends with energetic pieces in D minor; in the interior there is a group centred on E major/minor. The Intermezzo in E op.116 no.4 shows how fluid Brahms's conception of structure had become. The three main thematic units fall into neither conventional ternary nor recapitulating binary form, but rather are varied continuously so that one is justified in speaking of what Schoenberg called ‘musical prose’, a discourse that unfolds without patterned repetition.
In a letter to his friend Rudolf von der Leyen, Brahms called the three Intermezzos op.117 ‘Wiegenlieder meiner Schmerzen’ (‘lullabies of my sorrow’). In the first piece the association with the lullaby is made explicit: the rhythm is a softly rocking 6/8 and Brahms prefaced the music with a pair of lines from a Scottish ballad, as translated by Herder, beginning ‘Schlaf sanft mein Kind’ (‘Sleep softly, my child’). It has been suggested that the other two intermezzos in the set are also related to Scottish ballads.
In Brahms's late piano pieces we begin to see a breakdown of the traditional distinction between melody and harmonic support, between ‘above’ and ‘below’. The Intermezzo in F minor op.118 no.4 unfolds as a canon, sometimes free, sometimes strict, between the hands. The thematic material is extraordinarily compressed: in the middle section, the canon at the octave is based on nothing more than a sustained chord followed by a single note. A still stricter spatial symmetry characterizes the harmony and texture of the Intermezzo in E minor op.116 no.5. The triad played by each hand in the first six bars is an exact mirror of that in the other hand. Moreover, each chord appears on a weak beat and resolves to bare, two note dissonances on strong beats. Brahms thus reversed the traditional metrical procedure of associating the succession weak–strong with dissonance–consonance.
The 11 Chorale Preludes for organ, composed in May and June 1896, were published posthumously in 1902 as op.122. Intimations of the composer's mortality are clear from his choice of chorales, including two settings of O Welt, ich muss dich lassen. The models for this set are the preludes of Bach's Orgelbüchlein, described by Reger as ‘symphonic poems in miniature’, in which the chorale melody remains mostly in the top part. Reger's description could apply equally well to Brahms. The expressive seems inseparable from the structural in moments like the achingly sustained half-diminished 7th chord that precedes the final cadence in the first O Welt prelude, or in the complex motivic development that supports the guileless melody of O Gott, du frommer Gott. These last works capture the unique synthesis of historical and modern that lies at the core of Brahms's musical personality.