Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40

performed by Tamás Vásáry, Thomas Brandis & Norbert Hauptmann, or below by Dale Clevenger, Itzhak Perlman, and Daniel Barenboim

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Brahms on the blog, in fact about nine months, in his fourth and final symphony. Today’s trio for (natural) horn, violin and piano, op. 40, is a work from nearly two decades earlier. It’s widely known that this work was written after the death of the composer’s mother, and Wikipedia goes so far as to say that it “commemorates the death of Brahms’ mother, Christiane, earlier that year.” “That year” is 1865, but the article continues to point out that “it draws on a theme which Brahms had composed twelve years previously but did not publish at the time,” citing Alex Needham at The Guardian.

There are a few things to be aware of before we begin discussing this work in earnest. For one, many readers may know about Brahms’s affinity for nature, for the outdoors, for hiking, and while he didn’t immortalize it in anything like Strauss’s Alpensinfonie, it’s palpable in the absolute music of pieces like his second symphony, among others. Today’s work is one of a somber nature, introspective, rustic. In fact, it was featured recently in a wonderful chamber concert titled A Mellow Walk in Timeand emphasized these fragrant, melancholic, but tenderly beautiful qualities of the work. With a listen to this work, of only about a half hour, we will hear how these possibly disparate-seeming elements, those of appreciating nature, but also melancholy and sadness, are balanced and contrasted. In fact, Brahms had learned the natural horn in his youth, and obviously the piano, and the natural horn in particular has a more mellow sound; all of these things contribute to the sentimentality of the composition.

The trio is in four movements, and you might be surprised to know that the first movement, in contrast with Brahms’s penchant for structure and formality, is not in sonata form. Wikipedia says it’s comprised of “three slow sections offset by two shorter, more rhapsodic segments.” There’s also a difference in the way this four-movement structure is laid out. Three-movement works are often organized in a fast-slow-fast structure, but this work is slow-fast-slow-fast. Wiki says this might be “looking back to the old sonata da chiesa form,” but I think it’s perfectly suitable to the piece, in much the same way that Brahms’s middle symphonies had movements that began and/or ended quietly rather than loudly and grandly.

The first movement begins unassumingly, tenderly, really beautifully. There’s a characteristic fragrance, a delicacy and depth to the music, and we’re quite far, at this point, from hearing sadness or mourning. People will bring up, in discussing this work, the “stages of grief”, but I’m not so sure that’s an idea that would have been common back then, but maybe so. There’s really very little I feel I can say about this work: there’s a perfect balance and contrast among tenderness and simplicity, the interaction among the instruments, the color and texture of Brahms’s writing. Just listen. The first movement is a perfect beginning to this mellow journey.

In contrast with that, we have the bubbly, lively second movement. Wiki says “since the work as a whole simulates the stages of mourning, the Scherzo serves as the reminder of happy memories,” without a source for those statements, but one can easily see how this more outgoing movement is certainly the happier side of grief, regardless of the veracity of the “stages of grief” comment. That being said, the trio is certainly far more tender, with glimpses of more longing and heartache, but the scherzo returns without much regard for the lapse into melancholy.

The real heart of the grief in this piece is in the third movement. It’s the longest of the four movements, and begins with a funereal piano introduction that sounds to me like it’s hinting at Chopin’s famous funeral march. It instantly casts a blackout curtain of darkness over the whole piece: the sun is blocked out by the thick canopy of trees, and it’s dark, cool, lonely, somber. I can’t say anything else. Just listen. The only other thing I’ll say about it is that it’s not sappy; it’s heartrending.

Wikipedia speaks of the final movement by saying “The joy felt in the Finale symbolizes the recovery at the end of mourning,” but also lacks a source or citation. I failed to mention that there’s a ‘theme’ or motif of the E-flat overtone series that’s present in all four movements, which serves to unify the work as a whole, and also ends up being easy for the natural horn, I’d guess. We have that same theme here in the finale, and it feels that the third movement has been some kind of purge, that once that intense, uncomfortable honesty has allowed us to face reality (or whatever), that we can move on, because the finale is marked by robust energy, repeated notes, handsome horn lines, virtuosic piano passages, but never at once out of character with the piece overall. It’s exciting, refreshing, breathtaking, a wonderful end to our melancholy walk through the forest thinking about sad things.

Brahms was never one for program music, obviously, but if we want to get emotional and hypothetical and project our own thoughts and feelings onto it, then we can find some kind of catharsis in a work as beautiful as this. It can be healthy to get some of those uncomfortable things off your chest, to be realistic about them, run them by someone, get a hearing ear and let it all out, then just move on. Maybe this is as close as Brahms ever came to a programmatic work, and even then, only sort of inspired by

So then maybe it’s fitting that we be a little more gushy and ‘Dr. Phil’ about it for a moment. Two things that come to mind that seemed like really great thoughts about good and bad days.

For one, if you’re already having a crappy day (or know you will), make it a really crappy one and do all the things you’ve been putting off because they’ll ruin your mood: check your bank account balance, go to the tax office, have that uncomfortable conversation you’ve been needing to have. Whatever it is, don’t waste the crappy day, and then when it’s over, the next one, and many that follow, will be great.

Secondly, and I had a conversation about this with someone recently (and you know who you are!), is that everyone knows that person who’s always there to lend a hand or a hearing ear, gives good advice, is the shoulder to cry on, we all know that person. Every once in a while, ask that person how they’re doing, do something for them and make sure they’re okay. You likely won’t know how much it means to them.

How did we get to that? Anyway, I don’t think of Brahms as a gushy, emotional, flamboyant composer (like Liszt, for example), but even he has his moments of greater tenderness, and the adagio of this work, and the work as a whole, certainly seems to be one of them, and as I guess I said above, there’s something not only to enjoy but maybe even to learn from it. It’s gorgeous music, and certainly one of the pinnacles of chamber literature for the horn. We’ve been discussing lots of concertos, and will continue to do so, but this was really a centerpiece of the series, especially since I got to hear an outstanding performance of it a few weeks ago. Perfect timing!

But stay tuned. There are only a couple more weeks left of our horn series before we’re on to something new and exciting that’s been brewing for quite some time. Thank you for listening and reading.

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