Historical Timbres - by Jeffrey Dane

The music of Johannes Brahms, played on the composer's instruments

Period pieces played on period instruments offer a tangible sonic link with our musical past. Hearing a composer's music performed on his own piano, or on one he himself used, has an even more direct historic connection: it allows us to experience the same instrumental colors the composer himself expected to hear. A kind of revelation, it can make us realize he was as alive then as his music is now.

Johannes Brahms, the dominant musical figure in Austria during the last quarter of the 19th century, was fortunate: he graced the world and posterity with creations that outlived him and which will outlive us. We, too, are lucky: though he couldn't see into the future, we can hear into the past. A 2-CD set available from the Brahms Museum in Mürzzuschlag, in the Styria region of Austria, now affords us the opportunity to hear the sounds Brahms himself heard. The word special might best define this recording.

Johannes Brahms in 1853 Made especially for the Museum, the digitally recorded CDs contain nearly three dozen Brahms piano works, and a piece by Liszt (the Sonetto del Petrarca Nr.123 in A-flat major), all performed by Austrian pianist Jörg Demus (b. 1928). Among the 34 selections on the CDs are Brahms' Seven Fantasies op.116, the Three Intermezzi op.118, the Four Piano Pieces op.119, selections from the Three Intermezzi op.117 and from the Piano Pieces op.76, the Two Rhapsodies op.79, the perenially popular Waltz in A-flat major op.39 Nr.15, and Max Reger's transcription of the Wiegenlied (cradle-song), op.49 Nr.4 -- by title and tune best known as "Brahms' Lullaby," dedicated by Brahms to his friend, singer Bertha Faber, on the birth of her first child.

Historical Context

Brahms 4th Symphony manuscript There is still more. -- What makes this recording unlike others and almost unique is that nearly half the selections are performed on a concert grand piano made around 1850 by Wilhelm Bachmann of Vienna. That the music is played on this instrument makes these CDs a literal record of what Brahms himself heard: it's the very piano he often played during the summers of 1884 & 1885 in Mürzzuschlag, where he composed his Fourth Symphony in E-minor, op.98. Remaining selections on the CDs are rendered on a modern Steinway grand.

Not one to waste his time, other works he wrote during those two summers in Mürzzuschlag are Two Songs for alto, viola and piano, op.91; Four Quartets for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, op.92; Six Songs and Romances for a-capella choir, op.93a; Tafellied, op.93b; Five Songs for voice and piano, op.94; Seven Songs for voice and piano, op.95; Four Songs for voice and piano, op.96; and Six Songs for voice and piano, op.97.

Parenthetically, while Mürzzuschlag is not far from Vienna, taking only a little more than an hour's travel today by train or car, in Brahms' day it took about four hours to reach it by rail. Indicative of his very practical nature is that the composer usually chose his holiday destinations by the ease of railway connections -- and that he invariably avoided journeys on water at all costs. This fear of boat travel was based on his one sea-going experience, in a skiff, and was sustained by the tales of sea-sickness he'd heard from Clara Schumann. This dread prevented him from crossing even the English Channel, and cost him an honorary doctorate from Cambridge in 1877, whose offer had been conditioned on its being accepted in person. Brahms had an absolutely towering musical intellect, he allowed no score in his library until he was familiar with it, and allowed no book on his shelves until he had read it.

Brahms Bachmann piano detail Resurrected on this recording are the sounds of an era that died with Brahms. With many of the same pieces performed by Demus on both instruments, the recording offers a rare and incredibly fascinating kind of comparison listening and study, allowing us to compare the timbres and effects of the two pianos. The 1991 Steinway tells us, "This is the music Brahms wrote"; the century-and-a-half-old Bachmann piano reveals, "These are the tone colors Brahms heard when he played this piano." Given the advances in piano construction even between 1825 & 1850, the Bachmann instrument has a timbre somewhere between that of the fortepiano (Hammerklavier in German) and a modern concert grand, leaning in the latter direction while retaining a direct sonic connection with the former. Effectively, the sonorities of the Bachmann piano are closer than our modern instruments to what Brahms himself heard.

The album's explanatory title, In Memoriam Claudio Arrau, was prompted by special corresponding circumstances: the making of the recording, and the inauguration of The Brahms Museum. While Brahms Memorial Rooms exist in several Austrian locations (including the Haydn Museum in Vienna and the Kammerhof Museum in Gmunden), the Dietrich House in Mürzzuschlag, where Brahms lived during his stay, was acquired by the Austrian Brahms Society, and in 1991 the building became the only museum in the world devoted exclusively to him. It has more authentic Brahms mementos on permanent display than in any other location.

A gift from Dr. Peter Freiberger of Mürzzuschlag, the large Bachmann piano, its size befitting the magnitude of Brahms' work, is the Museum's dominant exhibit and is displayed prominently in the recital hall, where performances are given on the instrument even today.

Brahms' Pianos

Brahms Bachmann piano In Brahms' day the piano belonged to friends he often visited at their home at Wienerstrasse 50, not far up the street from his own corner-house dwelling in the Dietrich House at Wienerstrasse 2. Some of the piano's interior was rebuilt and restored in 1990-91 by Alfred Watzek of Vienna, specialists in historic instruments -- but the original keys remain, just as Brahms had played on them. It was Watzek's entity who in 1979 had restored the Heinrich Elwerkember piano used by Franz Schubert (but owned by his brother, Ferdinand) during the last year of his life, and which is now in the Schubert Memorial Rooms, at that time Ferdinand's apartment, at Kettenbrückengasse 6 in Vienna, where the composer died in 1828. The chronically needy Schubert was often supplied with manuscript paper by the generosity of his friends, and there is no evidence that he ever owned his own piano.

It's truly paradoxical that the most significant of the instruments Brahms played -- the piano he had in his Vienna apartment for a quarter of a century -- is no longer extant. It was an instrument made in mid-1868 by J.B. Streicher of Vienna (Streicher pianos had been around since Beethoven's era). Brahms acquired this instrument (serial number 6713) in 1872, not long after having permanently settled in Vienna. It was effectively on permanent loan to Brahms from the manufacturer, and when Streicher ceased production in 1896, they relinquished ownership of the piano to the composer. Brahms died the following year.

Brahms Streicher piano detail According to professional instrument restorer Herr Alexander Langer of Klagenfurt, Austria, only two fragments of Brahms' original instrument survived the ravages of the Second World War: the ornate music-rack, and the keyboard-cover. It had been reported that the legs also survived, but Herr Langer says this isn't so. "On the music-rack, there is a printed badge which says that Frau Prof. Dr. Celestine Truxa [the lady who owned the building in which Brahms lived] sold the piano to the Brahms-Gesellschaft in Vienna on 30 April 1904," Langer said. He also advised that these two fragments of Brahms' original piano are stored at or near the Brahms Museum and are not on public display.

However, exhibited with the Wilhelm Bachmann instrument at the Museum since the Brahms Festival in Mürzzuschlag in the fall of 1996 is a Viennese grand piano that operatively matches the very instrument Brahms had in his apartment at Karlsgasse 4 in Vienna for two and a half decades. (The building was demolished on April 3, 1907, exactly ten years after he died there). The instrument -- the same model as Brahms' own and made during the same era -- has a mellifluously smooth and mellow tone, befitting the nature of much of Brahms' music. The size of this massive piano, too, is also consistent with the overall scale of Brahms' work.

Hamburg-born Brahms could have opted for the German instruments like the Bechstein and those made by Rudolf Ibach & Sohn (who still have a factory at Wilhelmstrasse 43 in Schwelm, Germany, and who, in business since 1794, claim to be the oldest piano-maker in the world). Franz Liszt had such instruments in his large house (now a museum) on Marienstrasse in Weimar, where he lived for decades: his upright Ibach piano, and his enormous black Bechstein concert grand still dominate his music room.

Brahms could also have chosen the Steinway, or the Blüthner (Gustav Mahler owned one), but fittingly Brahms' choices led him toward pianos made in Austria, where he spent the latter part of his adult life. Aside from the Bachmann piano, two other still-extant pianos Brahms played are permanently exhibited in other locations in Austria.

Jeffrey Dane with the Brahms Bosendorfer piano The Kammerhof Museum in Gmunden displays in its extensive Brahms Collection a small Bösendorfer grand piano the composer used during his twelve intermittent creative summer holidays in Bad Ischl in the 1880s & 90s. It was this piano he used when, in the autumn of his life, he composed his last piano works heard on these recordings. These late works are the gems which remain today as sparkling high-water marks in the settings of the piano literature. This Bösendorfer instrument was for many years in the care of Frau Prof. Dr. Elfriede Prillinger, who was then the Direktor of the Kammerhof Museum's Brahms Sammlung (Brahms Collection), and who graciously let the author play the instrument.

Brahms Schumann Graf piano The Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente (Collection of Antique Musical Instruments) at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum has on permanent display numerous composers' pianos, all of which were for years in the keeping of the collection's Curator Emeritus, Dr. Gerhard Stradner. One of these is a Viennese grand piano made by Conrad Graf (who had made Beethoven's last instrument). This Graf piano has a solid Brahms connection: Robert Schumann had it in his workroom at Bilkerstrasse 15 in Düsseldorf, and it was this instrument the 20-year-old Brahms played for the Schumanns when he first visited them in October, 1853. The piano later came into Brahms' possession for a time.

The Recording, the Pianist and the Composer

Brahms Museum Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau died at 88 on June 9, 1991, two days after he was to have inaugurated the Brahms Museum at a gala concert. Jörg Demus, in Mürzzuschlag for the event, agreed on short notice to play the recital and to make the recording in honor of his late colleague. Demus set the example for the recording by playing both the Bachmann and Steinway instruments at the recital. He has also recorded Schumann on period instruments, and Beethoven on the composer's own Broadwood and Graf pianos, when the Broadwood was brought from the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest especially for the 1970 bicentennial performances at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn.

Johannes Brahms with signature Older music had a particular fascination for Brahms (he edited the works of Handel, among others), and his own music is a near-ideal combination of Romantic substance clothed in traditional formal garb. His fondness for the older forms is not only manifested in the structure of some of his music (in particular the last movement, a massive passacaglia, of his last symphony he composed in Mürzzuschlag), but is also represented on these CDs with the A-major Sarabande, and a Gavotte in the same key, based on a theme by Christoph Willibald von Gluck (who, interestingly, lived for decades in Vienna, at Wiedener Hauptstrasse 32, not far from Karlsgasse where Brahms did nearly a century later). Fittingly, these pieces in the older forms are played on these CDs on the older instrument.

A creature of habit, like most of us, Johannes Brahms preferred writing with quills, even after they were long out of fashion, and his staunch conservatism manifested itself not only in his personal and musical nature but also in the pianos he used, the timbres of which clearly represent the kinds of sounds he heard. Brahms accomplished more in a single year than most of us do in our individual lifetimes, and it's providential we are reminded of him by these tangible and significant remainders of him.

Brahms' summers in Bad Ischl

Brahms Streicher piano The author of this review must now take an active role in relating the following true story. -- Those twelve intermittent summers Brahms spent during the 1880s and 1890s in the town of Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, were fruitful in that they saw the creation of some of his greatest piano music. He often met with friends for dinner at Zauner's Restaurant (still a popular establishment) or at the Hotel Elisabeth (which later became the D.M. Drogerie), but the dwelling he occupied in Ischl was in a private house at Salzburgerstrasse 51. It wasn't far from the center of town but it was isolated, considering his need for creative seclusion and privacy. We should remember that he had already reached iconic status as a composer and was beseiged even then, before the era of mass media coverage, by autograph hunters.

The house he chose was owned by the Gruber family, who rented the second, uppermost storey to Brahms and gave him the use of the small Bösendorfer grand piano previously mentioned.

The Grubers had a young son, born in 1875. While staying at the Gruber house Brahms would compose for most of the morning and often part of the afternoon. During his first summers in Ischl, when leaving the house Brahms would address the young Gruber boy, "Hello, child." As the boy grew older, Brahms modified his greeting to, "Hello, young man." He'd occasionally talk with the boy, asking him how he had done in school that year, and so on.

On Brahms' last day at the Gruber house in the fall of 1896, as the carriage waited to take him to the railway station for his departure from Ischl (from whence he went to Karlsbad for a month's worth of the cures), the 63-year-old composer approached the now 21-year-old man, shook his hand, and said to him, "Farewell, Mr. Gruber." -- The passage of time and sad sequel show us that Brahms had cancer of the liver, and he might have sensed that he'd not return to Ischl. Fate verified this: he died in his Vienna apartment less than a year later, on April 3, 1897.

The foregoing was told to the author in the fall of 1987 in front of the Gruber house in Ischl, by the elderly lady who was then living there. The young boy Brahms had seen grow to manhood was her father.

Recording Availability

For any music lover generally, for any historic instrument enthusiast specifically and for any Brahms devotee in particular, the acquisition of this recording is, in a word, recommended, and is worth the effort. Like the study of the composer's music, the rewards are many and great for those who seek them.

In Memoriam Claudio Arrau, a 2-CD set, is available exclusively from:

The Brahms Museum
Wienerstrasse 4
A-8680 Mürzzuschlag, Austria
Phone: 43 3852 3434 / Fax: 43 3852 2376-20
www.brahmsmuseum.at
e-mail: info@brahmsmuseum.at
Price: € 28.90 Euros per each 2-CD set.

Important note: The best ordering procedure is via direct e-mail inquiry to determine total costs, and the best payment procedure is via credit card.

(As a very general guide, postage charges can range anywhere from 3.70 Euros to 17.85 Euros, depending on ultimate destination and postage rate chosen by the purchaser).

The author - Jeffrey Dane

Jeffrey Dane with the Brahms Streicher piano Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher, and author whose work appears in the USA and abroad in several languages. He has written extensively about Brahms and the other composers, and his book A Composer's Notes: Remembering Miklós Rózsa was published by iUniverse for the 2007 Rozsa centenary, extracts of which are accessible here on mfiles, as is a recent article he wrote on composer Franz Waxman. He has a marked tendency to develop an almost emotional attachment to the composers, living or not, whose music he studies. He's seen by some as overly confrontational and thusly a real idealist, and by others as insufficiently engaged and thusly an ideal realist. Both views have merit.

CD 1 - track listing

Performed on the Brahms-Flügel, Hammerklavier, Wilhelm Bachmann, Vienna, ca.1850.

Klavierstücke op.76 (Piano Pieces)

Drei Intermezzi op.117 (Three Intermezzi)

Klavierstücke op.119 (Piano pieces)

Zwei Rhapsodien op.79 (Two Rhapsodies)

Wiegenlied op.49 No.4 (transcription by Max Reger).

CD 2 - track listing

Performed on Steinway & Sons Concert Grand Piano, Model D-274, 1991.

Klavierstücke op.118 (Piano Pieces)

Rhapsodie op.79 No.2 in G minor Molto passionato, ma non troppo allegro

Sieben Fantasien, Op.116 (Seven Fantasies)

Drei Intermezzi op.117 (Three Intermezzi)

Vier Klavierstücke op.119 (Four Piano Pieces)

Franz Liszt: Sonetto del Petrarca No.123 in A major


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