The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms

By Doherty, Brian | Notes, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms


Doherty, Brian, Notes


The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms. By Barbara Owen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. [ix, 184 p. ISBN-10 0195311078; ISBN-13 9780195311075. $35.] Discography, index, references, appendices.

Johannes Brahms's musical legacy is built on orchestral, chamber, piano, and vocal music. The best of his works exhibit mastery of form, harmony, and counterpoint and synthesize musical styles from the classical and romantic traditions. Brahms's instrumental music expands on the legacies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann while his vocal music continues a tradition established by Schubert. Some of his lesser known works, however, display a mastery of much earlier styles. It is from these works that Barbara Owen draws her subject.

Among the least widely known of Brahms's compositions are those written for organ, an instrument seldom linked to him. The works are relatively short and appear, at first glance, as mere exercises in counterpoint. The preludes, fugues, and various chorale preludes, despite receiving less attention than some other works, are considerable musical contributions. They occupy a prominent place in the repertoire of organists and are evidence, as Owen demonstrates, that Brahms possessed considerable knowledge of, and experience with, the organ.

Nineteenth-century organ music was driven by two overarching achievements: the technological breakthroughs that allowed for greatly expanded, and colorfully diverse, instruments; and a rediscovery of the repertoire from the baroque period, especially the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Large organs with expanded ranges and tonal palettes enabled composers like Liszt to write complex and virtuosic symphonic pieces. Brahms eschewed the grandiose by producing a small yet highly personalized group of works that exhibit the composer's debt to Bach and the baroque revival of the early nineteenth century.

While clearly influenced by nineteenthcentury harmonic developments, the organ works hearken back to Bach and his contemporaries. Brahms conceived of the works during a period in his life when he studied Bach. Brahms's interests in counterpoint led him to the organ, an instrument for which he developed a serious, if short-lived, passion. Scholars have tended to view the organ works as an adjunct to the piano music rather than seeing them as idiomatic works that are more closely linked to his contrapuntal choral works than anything else.

By constructing a compelling narrative based on thorough analysis of extant documents, musical sources, and biographical evidence, Barbara Owen sheds new light on the origins and significance of these works. In what is the first monographic treatment of the organ music, Owen summarizes the disparate literature on the works and delves into more complex syntheses and analysis.

The book is arranged in two parts, encompassing six chapters, and three appendices complemented by a useful bibliography and copious endnotes. In part 1 of her study, Owen examines aspects of Brahms's life that contributed to his interest in the organ. Chapter 1 focuses on Brahms's relationship with the Schumanns, especially Clara, and their circle. Through letters, diaries and other documents, Owen crafts an interesting narrative that explains the many links that Brahms had to the organ, its music, and those who performed on it. His relationship with Clara led to their shared interest in learning to play the instrument and, ultimately, to composing works for it.

Brahms's affinity for Bach and early music is traced through Robert and Clara Schumann. In 1854, Brahms joined the Schu mann's circle through his friend Joseph Joachim. Both Robert Schumann and Joachim had developed a keen interest in the music of Bach through their friendship with Mendelssohn and their ties- Schumann as teacher, Joachim as student and teacher-to Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatory. Brahms's relationship with Clara Schumann, discussed at considerable length in other studies, is examined here in light of their mutual affinity for the organ. …

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