Overview

Johannes Brahms was a prolific chamber music composer. His chamber music involving piano includes lieder, sonatas, trios, quartets, and quintets. Among them, his trio combinations are well-varied, with combinations of woodwind, string, and piano (e.g., Horn Trio op. 40 and Clarinet Trio op. 114), and Two Songs op. 91 for voice, piano, and viola. Brahms also wrote many notable chamber works for instrumentalists exclusively, without piano. Inspired by his vastly rich and diverse output in chamber music, this chapter attempts to steer pianists’ attention toward this area, which offers a more comprehensive look at his creative development, as compared to his solo piano output, which falls into two general extremes — highly virtuosic pieces in his early period and a well-matured group of piano miniatures in his late period. 

Brahms’s chamber music, as wonderful a feat as it is for professional chamber musicians, also proves to be effective teaching material for summing up and reinforcing what students have already learned in keyboard harmony, improvisation, and score reading. Its characteristic of holding strong J. S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven traditions in compositional techniques makes this chapter a logical arrival point for the students who have been following along from previous chapters. Chapter 1 made use of baroque improvisation particularly as an entry and fundamental point. Chapter 2 suggested the canon of 10 Sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven as a focal point, while tracing an important development in the history of chamber music. Chapter 3 traced briefly back to Bach’s monumental chorales. This chapter’s use of Brahms’s chamber music will give students, especially those who may be intimidated by their lack of experience for his early piano works and by the maturity of his late ones, some hope via alternative ways of appreciating music by the composer.

The romantic era saw the rise of piano transcriptions of works for multiple hands and even keyboards, motivated partially by the pleasure of enjoying and sharing music in salons and middle-class homes, where the pre-modern piano became a more common household item. Brahms transcribed his own works for two pianos and four hands. In this chapter, recreating/improvising Brahms’s chamber works in a keyboard duo or duet is assumed and highly recommended. Instead of trying to emulate what Brahms might have done at the keyboard, the student is encouraged to see and treat Brahms’s music from a modern standpoint, analogous to how Brahms might have viewed Bach’s music. The exercises in this chapter put the students in the driver’s seat to incorporate their stylistic and interpretative knowledge learned in other classes, such as music history and music theory. It encourages listening, collaboration, and character- and emotion-building. The student will hopefully be motivated to continue their discovery of the huge reservoir of chamber music works, after this chapter’s rewarding and therapeutic journey.

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