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Thread: An Appreciation of Brahms' Organ Music

  1. #1
    Recruit, Pianissimo
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    Oct 2014

    An Appreciation of Brahms' Organ Music

    It is interesting that Brahms wrote organ music only at the start and the finish of his career. When you travel to Vienna, you can listen to (and sometimes play) instruments that he certainly heard if not performed on. Whether these were organs he considered ideal for his music is not certain.

    Coming from Hamburg, a mecca for organists then as now, Brahms must have had the opporunity to hear a lot of different instruments. He would probably at least have been interested in the Schnitger and other 18th-Century organs, considering he was absorbed by the music of Bach, and edited music by Handel and Couperin.

    In Vienna, the organs in the Votiv-Kirche and the Piaristen-Kirche Mariä Treu have not been very well cared for, though their restoration is perfectly possible. I have been fortunate enough to play both when they were in a reasonable state (between the ‘70s and ‘90s), but in 2009 the Piaristen–Kirche instrument was feeling very sorry for itself.

    The large organ in the Votiv-Kirche is a magnificent organ, in a lovely acoustic, with sounds that lead your ear and guide your fingers and make the sorts of demands that great instruments do. Playing Brahms here is an inspiration, with a wonderful palette of colours. It was built by E.F.Walcker (III/61) in 1878, and has never been altered. It has mechanical key- and stop-action with cone-chests and a Barker lever on the main manual.

    The acoustic is somewhat clearer in the Piaristen-Kirche, and the organ is by Buckow, 1858 (III/34), with mechanical key- and stop-action. This organ makes you realize how spoilt we are in the UK with instruments designed for the ease and comfort of the player! This one suits the builder, and the unfortunate player has to put up with becoming a contortionist. Wonderful as both these organs are, one must remember that Brahms was brought up as a Protestant, and the Viennese organs would not necessarily have appealed to him.

    It appears from correspondence with Clara Schumann and Joseph Jachim that Brahms learnt to play the organ in his twenties. He reports to the former that the Fugue in A flat minor was a great success one particular Sunday. The Chorale Prelude, O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid was also an early work, written for Clara Schumann’s birthday in 1856. We should not forget that he also used the organ specifically as an accompaniment to some of his choral works. Brahms was baptized in the Michaelerkirche, Hamburg, and subsequently composed music for choir and organ for a wedding there in 1859. The organ at that time was by J.G.Hildebrandt, 1761-69, though rebuilt in 1839-42.

    Brahms is rather parsimonious in his markings, which has led to all kinds of interpretations (should one say, liberties?) in the many editions that have appeared. The problem for us is perhaps similar to considerations in our approach to Mendelssohn. For years we assumed that his organ music should be interpreted in a romantic manner, yet he knew well the sound of Silbermann organs, and one would love to know what he heard inside his head as he composed. The Hildebrandt instrument mentioned above is a transitional instrument, between baroque and romantic, with many 8’ stops and lower-pitched mixtures. Such “transitional” instruments are only just beginning to be explored and appreciated, and the one or two that I have been fortunate enough to play have been lovely. Since the latest research seems to be showing that Bach admired such organs, we shall surely be taking them very seriously indeed, and it may affect our interpretation, not only of Bach, but of many composers of the 19th Century.

    There are, indeed, several writers of Brahms’ time who were agreed on how organs should be registered, for example Hugo Riemann in, Catechism of the Organ. His type of practices are said to have been used throughout Germany from about 1845 to 1895. What Brahms himself thought, we can’t be sure.

    The Eleven Chorale Preludes are one of the treasures of our repertoire. There is an LP recording of Brahms’ complete organ works by Franz Eibner at the Votiv-Kirche (Telefunken SMT 1264), and let’s hope there will be more in future. These pieces are so deeply personal in their expression, similar to the late piano pieces. Unfortunately, they do not seem easy to fit into a programme, and during a liturgical service it is hard to find a place for them. Unlike the piano pieces, it seems difficult to work out a group of (say) four that would make a convincing cycle, and the complete set might be rather indigestible.

    The modern systems for downloading seem to be the ideal for listening to Brahms. The Chorale Preludes, in particular, are such inward, personal music that listening on one’s own with headphones is one that Brahms would very much appreciate us doing!i

    I am indebted to articles by Ernst Kern, “Johannes Brahms und die Orgel,” in a report from a symposium held in Innsbruck in 1981, “Zur Orgelmusik im 19. Jahrhunder”t; and by Robert Schuneman, in “MUSIC/The A.G.O.-R.C.C.O. Magazine (September, 1972).

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
    Join Date
    Oct 2011
    A most interesting post Fanvault. Knowing very little about Brahms, your post is an encouragement to delve a little. Thank you.

  3. #3
    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2006
    Tucson, Arizona
    I have always enjoyed playing Brahms' organ compositions. I've frequently used any of the Eleven Chorale Preludes for church services, usually as preludes or at communion.

    Enjoyed the above article, too - thanks for sharing


  4. #4
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso wljmrbill's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Taylors, South Carolina, USA
    Thanks for the article.Well done and very interesting reading. I have played some but not many of his organ pieces but do enjoy his music.
    ....To play only what is written is the domain of science. To realize what is not written is the domain of art."
    - Jean Langlais

    I wish you the Best for each day, now and always.


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