Brahms, Bach, Schumann and the Music of Grief

Johannes_Brahms_1853ClaraSchumannGebWieckjohann-sebastian-bach

Bach and Brahms: composer names that are not often found in the same sentence. Baroque and Romantic, they are not found in the same stylistic periods of music history – 18th and 19th centuries, they are not even found in the same century. And as far as orgelwerke (organ works) go, many would say they are not in the same league. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left us 350-plus works for the organ, many of which are chorale preludes (pieces based upon German chorale or hymn tunes), while Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote very little organ music and left us with only one set of chorale preludes, his significant Eleven Choral Preludes, Op. 122.

Of the numerous sets of Bach chorale preludes, his planned (but less than half finished) Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), is the volume with which all beginning organ student cut their teeth. Though only 46 pieces were completed, Bach’s originally conceived project was 164 choral preludes covering every liturgical season and feast day of the Christian year. Some believe that he intended these to be used as teaching pieces. Whether true or not, every compositional texture of Bach’s mastery is found in the Orgelbüchlein: hands together on the same manual (organ keyboard) with an integral accompanying pedal part; a solo melody on one manual, with an accompanying figure with the other hand on another manual, also with pedal; a solo melody in the pedal with accompaniment figures in the manuals, either together or separate; and even duet melodies played by either one hand or both feet independently at the same time. These beautiful but short chorale preludes are, indeed, not as simple as many of us initially think they are.

Comparable in size and form to Bach’s Orgelbuchlein, Brahms’ chorale preludes were written in the summer of 1896 after the death of his close friend Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife of composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann dealt with mental illness most of his life and was hospitalized by his own request near the end. Brahms had great respect for Robert Schumann and for Clara Schumann, herself a fine composer and musician. Many believe that the elder Clara was the great love of Brahms’ life, which is why he poured his grief into composing these chorale preludes the summer after she died. Indeed, most of these preludes are settings of Passiontide and burial choral tunes, which adds to the mystique of the Brahms and Clara Schumann story.

Because they are beautiful and are exemplary in technique and style, I will offer a number of these Bach and Brahms chorale preludes as service music on Sunday, June 21. (I managed to work “Bach and Brahms” into the same sentence and into the same Sunday morning liturgy, did I not?)

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3 thoughts on “Brahms, Bach, Schumann and the Music of Grief

  1. Are the settings of “When David Heard that Absolom was Slain” ever performed now? I understand that they were composed because James the First’s son died.

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    • Betsy, there are numerous settings of this text by composers throughout history. Probably the Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes are the best known, and both settings are right up your alley! (and mine) There’s even a 20th century setting by Eric Whitacre that was premiered in 1999, about which I just learned. I don’t know first-hand the James the First story, but that would make sense. Here’s a wonderful recording of the Tomkins by John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers. DPO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1jXT8k7zWU

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