Johannes Brahms: Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118

Program note written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

The rather dry title Sechs Klavierstücke (Six Piano Pieces) conceals the enormous amount of feeling held within. Johannes Brahms’s publisher sensed this, and wanted to call them “Monologues” or “Improvisations,” but somehow those names seemed even more inadequate. “I suppose there is no other alternative than ‘Piano Pieces!’” Brahms replied. He recognized something ineffable in the music that forced a retreat to the most concrete of titles.

Four of the pieces are called “Intermezzo,” and oddly enough the set begins and ends with these supposedly in-the-middle movements. Though the name had shed its literal meaning in the context of 19th-century piano music, the framing still suggests a kind of skepticism of absolute beginnings and endings.

The other two movements are a Ballade and a Romanze. The Ballade is not so much a lyrical song as it is a lively narrative, picking up on a form that had been pioneered by Chopin. The Romanze is hushed, yet almost symphonic in sonority, opening as a processional in lilting steps.

Brahms wrote the collection in 1893, officially after retirement, while spending the summer in Bad Ischl. (Brahms’s holidays, as well as his retirement, were actually very productive periods.) He mailed the manuscripts one by one to Clara Schumann, who would play through them and respond, commenting on their “wealth of sentiment in the smallest of dimensions.” Eduard Hanslick reviewed the pieces by drawing a fanciful image of his friend Brahms composing them, “with and for himself on lonely evenings, in defiantly pessimistic rebellion, in brooding rumination, in romantic reminiscences, at times in dream-like wistfulness.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.