Concerning the Compositional Method of Brahms

by Harlequin


Most people like to think of Brahms as being a Romantic composer. E.T.A. Hoffman even characterizes music itself as the most Romantic of all arts, and defines Beethoven as the greatest Romantic in music. Early in his life, probably around 1833, Schumann wrote, "it is difficult to believe that music, an essentially Romantic art, can form a distinctly Romantic school within itself." Indeed, at the time, Romanticism was a new philosophical and literary school, as Heine richly documents. Schumann's doubts, that an analogous Romantic school could emerge in music, ultimately proved wrong, and he himself became the most critical adversary of its representatives, whom he called Philistines.

In our century, the term "Romantic" has acquired such a broad definition, that it is used to characterize virtually every sort of musical phenomenon of the 19th century. Schumann was to observe, already in his day, the emergence of the new north German school which won ever more followers. This ought to be regarded as "true" Romantic school, for purposes of definition.

Its chief exponents, Liszt, Wagner et al. composed with the conscious aim of defeating the Classical music idiom, which, they claimed, had become outmoded, indeed too rigid to adequately express the new "spirit" of their time. Such "new forms" as the Symphonic Poem sought to blur the distinction between music and the other arts forms, and to make it blatantly sensationalist, in tune with the sensualism which their "spirit" demanded.

Brahms defied his Romantic counterparts, always adhering rigorously to the Classical form which he regarded as perfect. To him, Classicism required no substitution, but rather further elaboration, using the limitless resources intrinsic to the form itself, because of its very nature.


The examination of Brahms' compositions reveals an extraordinary coherence of method, among them as well as within them. Typically, he would produce groups of compositions presenting similar motivic material developed in various different ways.

Adding to this coherence in Brahms' music is the extreme economy of means which he employs in "motivic thorough-composition" (Motivführung), successfully balancing a density seen only in the most rigorous moments of his predecessors, with a freedom of personal imagination reflected in his creative identity.

These are the elements, taken together, which were fraudulently criticised by the Romantics, especially Wagner and Wolf, as being poor in fantasy and ingenuity.

The fourth Symphony op.98 is a most suitable example of the practice they despised. It is based upon an elaboration of sequentially descending third-intervals. Such sequences became a real trade-mark of Brahms'music, acquiring a great complexity in the late years.

The main theme (ex.1, bars 1-18) clearly recalls a corresponding section in Beethoven's slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, similarly a simple succession of descending thirds and their inversion, of ascending sixths. This pattern reappears repeatedly throughout the Symphony, also as accompaniment to the second theme.

Of particular interest for later discussion is the relationship between this descending thirds idea, and the theme-- from the Bach Cantata BWV 150 --of the Symphony's last movement; a simple ascending scale fragment. The contrapuntal juxtaposition of the two figures, in variations 29 and 30 of this passacaglia-movement demonstrates this relationship most explicitly (ex.2, bars 233-248).

In bringing them together this way, Brahms transforms a sequence of thirds into a diatonic scale by simply filling the intervals with passing notes (ex 3).

He mastered the paradoxical simplicity of these elements, exploiting their unlimited potential for transformation: the third -interval is the building block which permits a distinction between major and minor tonality. Combining 2 of them permits us to introduce change, generating, for example, the so-called "devil's interval" (augmented fourth), and three thirds combined can generate the interval of a seventh. Both are vehicles for modulation throughout the entire tonal system. From this we can derive the musical scale, thus allowing vast degrees of change employing the simplest step-wise procedure, in variously combined counterpoint.

Schumann wrote, "The triad = times. The third bridges past and future, as does the present".


Many of Brahms' later compositions, among them the Piano pieces op.116 to 119, offer very interesting material for study of the same procedure as in the fourth symphony.

The Capriccio in G minor, op.116 n.3-- like most of these short pieces a simple A B A form --features a motive of descending thirds, this time forming a seventh-chord with the "devil's interval"(ex 4a, bars 1,3,5 etc), so as to create extreme tonal tension.

The B-flat passing note is introduced into the descending thirds motive. Of this figure, the tones C, B-flat, A are mirrored in the second measure as F#,G,A (ex 4a, bars 1-2). This stepwise fragment is then richly elaborated in the Capriccio's middle section, though steering clear of the tonal tension of the first section (ex.4b, bars 35 etc). The resulting contrast helps lend the piece its typically symphonic character, as do the multiplicity of voices employed.

Observing the op. 116 as a whole, one immediately recognizes a pattern; for example the similarity between the above cited no. 3, and the Capriccio n.7 in D minor (ex 5a, bars 1-4,etc). Here, the subject in descending thirds in the upper voice is mirrored in the bass. In the middle section the scale-fragments also reappear (ex 5b, bars 21-28, etc, alto voice).

This obvious affinity also includes the other Capriccio, n.1 in D minor, whose main theme derives from a combination of ascending sixths and descending thirds (ex 6, bars 1-17). Throughout the piece, chains of descending thirds are, once again, observed, and yet again, in Op. 119 n. 1 (ex. 7, bars 1-4, etc).

The very lyrical Intermezzo op. 116 n.4, in E major re-introduces the leading motiv in the Capriccio n.3 (ex 4a), altering the small intervals, while preserving the larger seventh-interval-frame under which they are subsumed. Thus, a second-interval replaces the third, at the outset (ex 8a, bars 1-6, soprano voice). In measure 15, though, the same Capriccio-motif reappears, merely in major and half-step higher (ex 8b, bars 15, etc), having followed yet another short episode in descending thirds.

We find yet further treatment of this interval pattern in the remaining numbers of the op.116: in the n.5, an Intermezzo in E minor, it is not difficult to localize the same Capriccio-motiv again, but now expressed chorally or "vertically", not sequentially (ex 9, bars 1,2, etc).

Among the next three sets of pieces, a few numbers are especially worth considering.

The Lullaby in E flat major, Op. 117 n.1, recalls the middle section of the G minor Capriccio shown in ex 6, with its scales figures now descending, now ascending (ex 10, bars 1-4 etc, alto voice).

Its companion, n.3, in C# minor, similarly shows a sequence of filled-in thirds (ex 11a, bars 1-5). Worth noting here is the first of the four serious songs, op.121 in D minor, which theme borrows from the above (ex 11b, bars 1-8, etc).

Yet another analogy is found in the mysterious Intermezzo in E flat minor, op.118 n.6, which motiv is based on just one single interval of a third, from G flat downwards to E flat, repeatedly filled in with passing notes. In contrast, the bass voice responds with ascending and descending arpeggios in thirds (ex 12, bars 1-3, etc).

Such an economy of means is what lends the piece its spectral atmosphere, making it one of the most beautiful of the whole collection.

A slightly different approach is taken in the Intermezzo op.118 n.4. in F minor, with its thirds-sequence, in triplet-rhythms, in the alto and opposing bass voices. This Intermezzo is a great example of Brahms' mastery of counterpoint and canon-writing.

As a final example among the piano pieces, the concluding Rhapsody in E flat major, op.119 n.4 deserves mention; a piece that recalls Schumann (see n.13 of the Davidsbündlertänze, op.6). The central kernel is given as the two thirds, F- A-flat and G- E-flat, with the familiar passing seconds (ex 13, bars 1-9, etc).

Study of the remaining numbers, for the same purpose, is similarly worthwhile.


This discussion extends, as well, to many of the other late works.

The Four Serious Songs, op.121 is rich in examples. The third song opens like the fourth Symphony (ex 14, bars 1-3). And, as already mentioned above, the first song recalls the C# minor Intermezzo.

Situated directly before and after the piano pieces, one finds works with clarinet, inspired by the virtuoso solo clarinetist of the court theater of Meiningen. The opening theme of the Clarinet Quintet op.115 (ex 15, bars 1-2), shows a striking analogy with that of the above cited E-flat minor Intermezzo op.118 n.6 (see ex 12).

Of the two sonatas op. 120 for piano and clarinet, the first, in F minor, has a beautiful, singing first theme, which is nothing other than newly ordered third-chains (ex 16a, bars 5-12, clarinet voice).

In the piano statement of the first theme, we find an elaboration of the clarinet statement (in ex 16a). The introduction, seen from this perspective, has already posed this elaborated material in condensed form (ex 16b, bars 1-4). Its short motivic figure becomes a medium of transformation constituting the development. It also determines the basic idea for the remaining movements, most clearly in the third movement. Allegretto (ex. 17, bars 1-2, etc).

The Sonata's second theme is based on a scale-fragment motive, which conclusion brings the two elements, scales and third-chains, together; a reminiscence of the procedure seen above in the Fourth Symphony's passacaglia.

The bass figure in bars 72 to 76, which passes, two bars later, to the upper voice within each instrument, recalls the Capriccio op. 116 n.7 (ex 5a).


In considering the wealth of musical ideas, compositional forms and contrapuntal-harmonic richness Brahms realized, together with an uncanny economy of means, one can only agree with the only compliment Wagner paid Brahms: concerning his Händel Variations for piano, op.24, Wagner said, "it is amazing to see what one can still do with the Classical form, if he knows how to treat it!".

Nietsche termed Brahms' genius a "melancholy of impotence", and the Wagnerians tellingly argued that Brahms made-- let us borrow from Shakespeare -- "much ado out of nothing". To this, the writer answers, "better Brahms' 'much ado out of nothing', than to do nothing out so much, as Wagner did!"

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