Brahms: Scherzo in Eb minor, op. 4

played by Krystian Zimerman

Yesterday we spoke at some length about the early history of Brahms and his classical, traditional bent. His first piano sonata and his first symphony, among other works, show clear influence from Beethoven, and a great admiration for the man, as he should have.
Today we will discuss his opus 4, an independent scherzo, completed in 1851. This is Brahms’ earliest work to have an opus number, completed a few years before the sonatas, and therefore also included among the works the young composer showed the Schumanns when he appeared on their doorstep with a letter of recommendation from his future lifelong friend Joseph Joachim.
The piece is in the difficult (obscure?) key of E flat minor, a key hey would many years later finish his last solo piano piece in. As with many of Brahms’ works, there is a fantastic, almost overwhelmingly detailed analysis available at Kelly Dean Hansen’s website that proves very useful if not a bit too thorough. The work is a standalone scherzo with not one but two trios. Interestingly, Hansen notes that “The very fast triple meter, combined with the fully written-out second scherzo reprise, results in the highest measure count of any Brahms vocal or instrumental movement (except the cantata Rinaldo).” That seems an odd mark to reach in one of your earliest published works. It’s only ten minutes long, but it really is quite… mesmerizing.
I find it much more engaging, somehow, than the opus one sonata, perhaps due to its relative brevity. Regardless, it is obvious that it comes from the same period in the same composer’s life. What is noticeable here is that the work doesn’t scream Beethoven as much as it feels like Chopin, who also wrote independent scherzos for piano, four of them, although Brahms denied knowing of the existence of these works at the time of composition. By that time, Chopin had been dead for a number of years.
It is obviously a far heftier scherzo than that found in yesterday’s sonata (or any of them, for that matter), as mentioned above, due to the two trios in the work. As Hansen states, “It is this double-trio model that makes it so much more substantial than the ones in the piano sonatas, since it requires three full playings of the main scherzo section (the third with some variation).”
So Brahms obviously wasn’t the first to do this (since Chopin alone had written four), but it’s a testament to good writing that a solo piano scherzo can hold, grip, the listener’s attention for a full ten minutes. Two trios certainly help to break up the triple-meter-ness of the piece.
The piece begins quietly but with an almost menacing, diabolical (evil?) “skittish” (per Hansen) fast triple meter rhythm, one that captivates with a kind of dramatic quiet from the very outset. It quickly builds, with a hypnotically strong rhythm, and a soft melody appears over all the skittishness that becomes louder and more pronounced. It’s incredibly handsome. It seems this theme is
what Hansen refers to in his analysis as the ‘hammered’ gesture or theme, a very handsome, rich, almost Liszt-like grandeur and virtuosity. It reminds me almost of some of the sounds in the first Mephisto waltz.
To be honest, I find it hard to follow Hansen’s play by play, so incredibly detailed, with the nicknames given to each of the themes or gestures. Granted, I’m not following a score nor am I using his suggested recording. In any case, the first trio, in E flat major, is quiet(er, relatively speaking; how could it not be?). Hansen describes it as skittish, but it’s bright, and I would likely use the word ‘playful’ rather than skittish, as we already used that description for the very different scherzo theme. While they both kind of have a certain energy, I’d describe the scherzo’s ‘skittish’ as ‘nervous’, while the first trio is more genuine and sunny. In any case, it leads us back to the scherzo theme again, which sounds more intense this time around before landing kind of abruptly in the second trio, in B major, which Hansen refers to as being related to the original key if you think of it as C flat…?
In any case, it’s noticeably more…. full-bodied than the first trio, almost regal, celebratory, and roars to great, almost violent heights, at its end, with the ever-obvious upward triplet figure of the scherzo making a few appearances as it kind of decays down expertly back into the now haunting, almost eery main scherzo theme, for the third time. Some of the harmonies are a bit different this time around, but it’s the same thundering, Liszt-like scherzo that’s crunchy and exciting, breathtaking, and the piece ends decisively.
The layout of this work is, with its two scherzos, not unlike a rondo, ABACA, similar to the final movement of the sonata from yesterday, but with the distinction that the B and C themes serve the same purpose as trios, breaks from the fiery scherzo theme.
The work, at the risk of stating the stupidly obvious, is very Brahmsian. In its richness of harmonies and expression, it’s almost symphonic; one could perhaps hear this as a ten-minute work in a symphony or as part of a concerto. It also has a captivating, unrelenting rhythmic drive, and it doesn’t really lose steam even in the trio sections. Again, while the development of the scherzo (piano or otherwise) is an idea perhaps strongly associated with Beethoven, the solo-piano independent scherzo calls Chopin to mind; again, I feel the fury in this piece, the bigness of chords and fiery virtuosity calls Liszt to mind, but these qualities are all also very early Brahms. The piece, I feel almost more even than the sonata from yesterday, shows a composer who already has a voice, a style, and very strong artistic intentions, someone with incredible promise, and we shall continue to see that as we address his works, not only tomorrow’s but when we eventually get around to his other sonatas, his chamber works, and all the rest. See you then.

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