FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Brahms

The word “tief” in german means “deep” and it is a very commonly-used word to describe not only  the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) but also germanic culture and romantic music in general. “Seicht” on the other hand, is the german word for “shallow, superficial” and is a word that is much less commonly used in german, and very rarely used to describe Brahms, germanic culture or romantic music. Brahms’s music takes us into the worlds of both germanic and romantic music more deeply than perhaps any other composer. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), almost an exact contempory of Brahms, is perhaps a close competitor for this title, but whereas he wrote almost exclusively symphonic works, Brahms has left us with two cello sonatas, a (double) concerto and a vast body of chamber music.

When playing Brahms not only do we need a germanic sound (well into the string) and germanic vibrato (measured and wider rather than electric and hysterical), we also need a germanic brain (structured) and heart (warm but sober) ………… and a big strong germanic hand with meaty fingertips would be a great help also !!!!. If we were to use a canine (doggy) analogy, this is music for a German Shepherd much more than for a French poodle!

His later works (for example his Second Cello Sonata Op 99 and Double Concerto Op 102) are extremely complex from a cello-technique point of view, but also musically, intellectually and expressively. We will therefore be well advised to start our Brahms exploration with his earlier works (First Cello Sonata Op 38, Piano Trio Op 8 etc) which are much simpler from every point of view and possibly even more “beautiful” than his later works. Although Brahms’s music is very “tief”, that doesn’t mean that he stays in the cello’s low register. In fact, in his later soloistic works especially, he takes the cello up very high and quite often. A compilation of thumbposition passages from his cello music can be found here.

Brahms’s music poses several characteristic musical problems that we will need to understand and get used to:

LONG PHRASELINES (SLURS) THAT ARE NOT BOWINGS

Brahms loved long lines (like long germanic sentences) but we must be aware that what we see as Brahms’s slurs are normally actually phrase-lines (in the pianistic sense) rather than precise bowing indications. Often we will need more bow than Brahms indicates, especially when playing melodies over the thick piano accompaniment textures that he so much likes:

brahms snta more bow new

FREQUENT DOUBLESTOPS AND CHORDS

Brahms’s music is not only deep, it is also thick. Rather than the watercolour-like transparency of much french (and italian) music, Brahms uses loads (lashings) of thick dark oil-paint, filling out not only his accompaniment lines but also often his melodic lines as well, with as many notes as can possibly be played at the same time by that big germanic hand. Perhaps this is the musical reflection of the typical north-german heavy skies with their near-permanent thick low cloud cover ? Whatever the reason, the consequence of this is that small-handed players can suffer with Brahms, and not just us cellists: pianists, violinists and viola players have exactly the same problem. Alicia de Larrocha, a magnificent spanish catalan pianist who was also tiny, never played Brahms for this reason.

The virtuosity required in his Double Concerto is often more vertical than horizontal in the sense that the notes he adds to the solo parts to give that spectacular dramatic concerto feeling are so often extra doublestops and chords (real or broken) rather than flashy melodic notes. We could fill pages with examples of doublestops from Brahms’s cello parts (click on highlighted link). Here below is just a small selection of some of the many doublestopped passages from his Double Concerto that contribute to making it one of the more difficult, complex and strenuous pieces in the standard cello repertoire. The solo cello passage that opens the first movement (the first of the following examples) is a good introduction (perhaps we could even say “warning”) to what is to follow ………

brahms double selection new

The above examples use a lot of melodic doublestopped thirds and sixths but very often Brahms’s passagework (less thematic) also reflects his tendency to vertical and harmonic thinking in the sense that it tends to be hugely permeated with broken doublestops (and broken chords). When we add up the real doublestops and the broken ones we could be justified perhaps in renaming the Brahms’s “Double Concerto” as his “Doublestop Concerto”! He really does think like a pianist, and often writes for the cello as though it was a piano. But unfortunately for us, those legato arpeggio-interval figures which are so easy and comfortable on the piano are often very awkward for a cellist, especially when they occur in strange keys or up high on the fingerboard!! And his love of this “harmonic” writing style means that in Brahms we often have a superabundance of nasty (for cellists) fifths. Haydn has a quartet named after its characteristic thematic fifths: Brahms’s Double Concerto could also perhaps be renamed as his “Fifths Concerto” !!

brahms dble I broken dbles

USE OF HEMIOLA

Brahms has a very characteristic use of “three-against-two” rhythms which is much more than just a use of simple triplets. Whereas a triplet divides one beat into three, Brahms loves the slowed down version (called “hemiola”) in which two beats are subdivided into three parts. This creates a potent effect of pulling against the beat, of spaciousness and rhythmic expansivity that we could almost call “Brahmsian”. Never do we play our notes longer and more legato than when squeezing three notes into the time of two: it is as though we are pushing the edges of the rhythmic confinement outwards to expand the space (time) to its maximum possible duration, and Brahms obviously loved this sensation. The opening of his Double Concerto provides a good example of this: of the first 18 bars (including 14 with the cello playing absolutely alone), eight feature these hemiola rhythms.