Johannes Brahms: Name That Tune!

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


When I was growing up, music appreciation teachers talked about the "Three Bs" -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In more recent years Brahms seems to have been replaced by Mozart; music appreciation teachers by football coaches. So I haven't heard the "Three Bs" mentioned in quite a while.

Now I don't at all mind adding Mozart to the short list of the greatest composers of all times. But I seriously object to dropping Brahms. I have never heard a work by Brahms I didn't like, and I can't say that for Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. This is perhaps because Brahms was such a perfectionist he destroyed his own compositions when they didn't measure up to his own high standards.

When I was a teenager I played a musical game with my brother, Andrew. It was a kind of classical "Name That Tune!" As he was five years older, he used to beat me at most games. But I felt I had a fighting chance at "Name That Tune!"

The rules were simple. One of us would put on a record for a maximum of three minutes and the other would have to guess who the composer was and the name of the composition. When we became better at this with the limited number of LPs in our collection, extra points were added for identifying which movement the selection was from.

The more sophisticated we each became at this game, the more we tried to trick each other, of course.

One time Andrew put on a record, starting it at the very beginning, of beautiful orchestral music. I knew right away it was by Brahms. Like all great composers, Brahms has a style all his own -- very melodious but serious, intense, dramatic, passionate, romantic, structured without seeming to be, often melancholy, sometimes tender. A style which is difficult to describe without getting technical, but which I sure know when I hear it!

So naming the composer was not the problem. What was the piece? It sounded just like the beginning of one of his symphonies, but he only wrote four of them and none of them started off this way -- on either side of the LP. Andrew left the piece going for the full three minutes. I racked my brain but couldn't for the life of me tell what it was. How, after all, could I possibly have guessed that this was a piano concerto... when there was no piano in it?

At least not for the first three minutes. It turns out that Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15" started off to be his first symphony! He completed the orchestration for the first movement, but he wasn't satisfied with it. Instead of tearing it up or burning it, he reduced the work to a sonata for two pianos. He then sent the piece to Clara Schumann, composer Robert Schumann's wife, and an accomplished pianist and sometime composer in her own right.

Clara liked the piece and performed it in public with Julius Otto Grimm, who was helping Brahms learn how to orchestrate. It was Grimm who suggested that Brahms combine his symphonic and pianistic ideas and turn this piece into a concerto for piano and orchestra.

Brahms used only the first two movements of the sonata and composed a new third movement for what became the piece that Andrew used to stump me.

It still takes more than three minutes for the piano to enter in the first movement, even when played by as outstanding a pianist as Lazar Berman with an orchestra as great as the Chicago Symphony and a conductor as superb as the late Erich Leinsdorf. And that is the recording I use to trick my wife now when we play "Name That Tune!" This CBS Records Masterworks recording (MK 35850) is out of print , but not to worry -- there are some 38 recordings listed in the Schwann Opus catalog, and they include interpretations literally ranging from A to Z: by Ashkenazy, Berman (with the Prague Symphony Orchestra though, not the Chicago), Brendel, Cliburn, Fleisher, Gilels, Horowitz, Kapell, Rubinstein, Serkin (both father and son), and Zimerman. Some of these new recordings even come coupled with Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. That work is every bit as beautiful as the First Piano Concerto, but you won't be able to use it to trick your opponents in "Name That Tune!" The piano is there from the seventh note onward and I don't think the piece ever goes for three minutes without it. Which is as it should be in a piano concerto, after all.

Although Andrew and I now live on different coasts of the U.S., we have resumed our game of "Name That Tune!" after may years without it. Our play is a bit one-sided now, however, as I send him all the unlabeled audiocassettes and he does all the guessing. He's still very good at this, but I just got a CD with a piece I'm sure will stump him!

He'll be able to listen to all 8 minutes 33 seconds of the "Das Liebesverbot Overture" ("The Ban on Love") from the new EMI Classics release (7243 5 56165 2 4) without ever guessing the correct composer.

This lively, happy, tuneful music sounds like it might be an overture to an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. But, surprise of all surprises, it is the overture to an early "grand comic opera" composed in 1834-6 by none other than Richard Wagner, who never again wrote such joyful music.

The piece is included in a CD of early Wagner orchestral works performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The album also features Wagner's "Symphony in E," "A Faust Overture," "Wesendonck Lieder," and the "Overture to Rienzi."

After all these years, I'm looking forward to getting back at Andrew for the pianoless excerpt from Brahms' First Piano Concerto.


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