I think it’s appropriate to offer two works that appear “first” in certain groupings of compositions by J. S. Bach and Johannes Brahms in our first session of the new year. I chose these because their opening measures are truly arresting. Such energetic beginnings seemed just right to start off the new year.
To be honest, there’s a bit of sleight of hand at work in the order of Bach’s motets; it has to do with the dating of the works. The current numbering of the 6 (possibly 7) motets was determined in the mid-20th century, but the process of organizing Bach’s enormous output began with the first edition of all of Bach’s known works by the Bach-Gesellschaft in Leipzig. The edition was created over nearly a half century, from 1851-1899, and many hands were engaged in the huge task. (Brahms eagerly followed the publication of each volume, studying them deeply.) Over the following century discovery or recognition of other Bach works triggered an edition of the chronological “Thematic-Systematic” catalog (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or BWV) under Wolfgang Schmieder (1901-1990), a German librarian and musicologist. This undertaking included corrections and filled in gaps that were out of range of the 19th-century scholars. The entire Bach corpus was numbered chronologically, as best as could be accomplished by Schmieder in the second half of the 20th century. (Subsequent emendments followed.) Each number was listed with either a BWV or S designating this catalog.
A page from the Bach-Gesellschaft edition of J. S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, as published in 1856
Back to the motets: The dates of Bach’s composing the motets range from 1723 to 1737; one motet attributed to him from 1741-6 is not numbered, and another, listed as S230, is undated (possibly very early if indeed by Bach). So we are left with a small number of motets. The first one listed is S225, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (Sing to the Lord a new song), from 1727, but its date is 4 years later than that of S227 of 1723. Ah well, be that as it may, “Singet…” is the first listed, so we’re calling it “First”.
Bach's Motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 Netherlands Bach Society Stephan MacLeod, conductor
The motets were generally sacred in nature, often including Psalm texts and chorale verses. They were works for civic ceremonies, usually funerals of people active in Leipzig. “Singet…”, however, was for the birthday of Friedrich August II (1670-1733), the Elector of Saxony who had been elected (!) King of Poland. The motet is in three sections performed by an unaccompanied double choir (both SATB), on texts from Ps. 149, the third verse of the chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren”, and PS. 150. The first movement opens with a brilliant antiphonal dialog of psalm versses alternating between the choirs. The second interlaces the lines of the chorale verse (called an aria) between lines of the psalm. The third movement is a fugue by the united choirs on the text “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (Praise the Lord for his acts) from Ps. 150.
Johannes Brahms, born in 1833 in Hamburg, was an exceptional piano student of the respected teacher, Eduard Marxsen, through whom from the age of 12 he became acquainted with and a devotee of J. S. Bach’s music. The Baroque elements and genres he absorbed in those early studies stayed with his compositional thinking throughout his life, appearing in some of his earliest compositions; even in his first public recital he included a Bach fugue. But he was also thoroughly schooled in the classical traditions of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and finally Robert Schumann, upon which so much of his composing was founded.
Brahms was quintessentially a pianist, his earliest compositions coming from his mastery of the instrument and years of concertizing. It wasn’t until the 1850s that one can see the process of his shifting from thinking “pianistically” to thinking “orchestrally”, as Michael Musgrave explains in The Music of Brahms (1994). His path to the first piano concerto wound from a sonata in D minor for two pianos in 1854, through a recasting the sonata into a sketch of a symphony, to the final product, the remarkable piano concerto in D minor, op. 15, completed in 1859. At the time, Brahms had been living in the home of Robert and Clara Schumann as Robert’s student.
Robert and Clara Schumann
This first piano concerto is quite different from the second, in B-flat (op. 83, 1881) in its structure and spirit. It has been called a symphony with piano obligato because of the dominance and virtuosity of the solo piano against a relatively non-competitive orchestra. Its three movements are classically organized, although their musical contents are often far beyond the restraint of even a Beethoven. Beyond that, the concerto may be read as strongly autobiographical. The unique and dramatic opening of the first movement gives separate themes to orchestra and soloist, with a very late appearance of the soloist’s theme; the passion expressed in the movement is thought to have reflected the tumult of Robert Schumann’s mental illness and death in 1856. The hauntingly beautiful second movement Brahms called a portrait of Clara Schumann, with whom he had fallen in love. The unusual time signature 6/4 for the first 2 movements smacks of Brahms’s studies of Renaissance music. The third (and last) movement contains a fugue. So unusual a work took time to find full acceptance, by either audience or publisher. Now, however, the magnificent power of the music and brilliance of the piano score invite great appreciation of Brahms’s first essay into the concerto.
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major Op. 83 | Yuja Wang, piano Munich Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev