Brahms: 16 Waltzes, op. 39

performed by Barry Douglas, or below by Anatole Kitain

(cover image by Simon Matzinger)

The sixteen waltzes of Brahms’ op. 39 are dedicated to Eduard Hanslick and were completed by 1866. They were originally written for piano-four-hands. There were two versions of the 2-hand piano version, a difficult and simplified one, and a few of the keys are different in these versions to improve the playing experience. Or something. All versions of the piece sold well, so yeah, it also had to do with making them accessible to more performers.

The works were written in Vienna, as a sort of tribute to the city by means of its famous dance. The works are kind of… individual little snapshots, single images. I won’t so much say there’s contrast within each individual piece as there is balance. These pieces, almost all written in “recapitulating binary form,” have a relatively basic structure and aren’t long enough to support much in the way of development. That being said, there is a sense of equality, a loud outburst answered somehow by a quieter gesture, or perhaps only in the following waltz.

Wikipedia tells us that the pianist Joseph Smith (not the Mormon, I don’t think) “made a compelling case for taking them seriously as a unified cycle,” but really, I think these pieces, with their outstanding charms and feeling, are perfect as they are, immediate, straightforward examples of the surprising beauty that can result in such a small musical idea, and that’s really what these waltzes are.

You might think of them as Brahms’ answer to some of Chopin’s salon music. They’re of a similar nature, but strike me as less… dare I say mawkish? Saccharine?

Again, there are 16 waltzes, as follows:

  • B major op. 39/1
  • E major op. 39/2
  • g sharp minor op. 39/3
  • e minor op. 39/4
  • E major op. 39/5
  • C sharp major op. 39/6
  • c sharp minor op. 39/7
  • B flat major op. 39/8
  • d minor op. 39/9
  • G major op. 39/10
  • b minor op. 39/11
  • E major op. 39/12
  • B major op. 39/13
  • g sharp minor op. 39/14
  • A flat major op. 39/15
  • c sharp minor op. 39/16

If that weren’t enough of a list, here’s another one. As short as these pieces are, using many words at all to discuss them seems… cumbersome and unjust to the beautiful genius of these pieces. A numbered list follows with my individual words or phrases for each waltz:

  1. Ebullient, confident
  2. Stately, subdued, delicate, loving
  3. Melancholy (a melancholy waltz does exist), like a music box
  4. Spirited, animated, motivated, even stormy
  5. Soft, tender
  6. Bouncy, chirpy, playful, virtuosic, fun
  7. Solemn, refined, moving, warm (this is the longest in Douglas’ set)
  8. Familiar, like a brighter answer to no. 7, gently rocking
  9. Mysterious, distant
  10. Cheerful, sunny, almost as bold as no. 1, but with a shadow
  11. Chopin-esque, salon music, bright for a minor key
  12. Familiar, lyrical, dramatic
  13. Bold, robust, triumphant
  14. Agitated, energetic, showy,
  15. Lullaby, comforting, soothing, tender, heartfelt
  16. Romantic, fluid, nostalgic

How’s that for analysis? Like tasting notes at the wine-tasting version of speed-dating.

As flippant as this article may sound, there aren’t words to describe the brilliant vividness of these little works that are apparently light and carefree. There’s a magical elegance attached to every one, and unrestrained by the shackles of any kind of potentially abstruse form (for even the most uninitiated of listeners), it’s one of the most direct examples I can currently think of to convey the sheer, blissful joy of beautiful music.

This is not the Brahms of the Requiem or even the first symphony. It’s full of charm and beauty, but The Bearded Wonder never relinquishes the deep, awe-inspiring sense of perfect craft in even these small works.

What more is there to say? Not a lot about this piece, but do stay tuned for others (some of even more individual movements/pieces), and thanks so much for reading.

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