Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Brahms Chorale Preludes – For whenever you need them

These eleven pieces are the last that Johannes Brahms wrote. They are each very brief, literally just settings of hymns as was done by Brahms' inspiration throughout his life, J. S. Bach. They were published after Brahms' death as his Op. 122. They were all composed in 1896, the year before he died.

1. Mein Jesu, der du mich zumLustspiel ewiglich

This is to be translated as, “My Jesu, Thou who me to delight forever” is an extinct hymn from one of Brahms' old Lutheran hymnals. Brahms was a collector of old music and some old books and monographs. We would not have the Scarlatti sonatas if it hadn't been for Brahms buying them and bestowing them to posterity after his death. But more to the point, the phrase in German implies something closer to, “My Jesus, Thou who made a fool of me forever.” The piece is far from cheery. Indeed it is deep and rapt ... and of course it could just as easily have been written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The ever self-effacing Brahms, who somehow saw the futility of it all, seemingly at the end of his life faced the inevitable perplexities with a mixture of resignation and quiet anticipation. 

Bernard Lagacé, 1978, performed on the Wolff Organ at the Eighth Church of Christ, Scientist, New York City, Titanic, serial number TI-38. The organ was built in 1977 by Hellmuth Wolff of Montreal.

2. Herzliebster Jesu, was hast duverbrochen 

This one translated as “Dearest Jesus, what crime have you done?” often as not to indicate the innocence of Jesus, but just as likely, there was a personal twist to it, for perhaps Brahms was wrestling with his own unbelief; what crime had Jesus done to he, Brahms, to force his acceptance?

Marco Limone performed on the Bossi organ at Santuario della Madonna degli Angeli in Turin, Italy in 2010.

Very simply, as it chugs forth, “Oh World, I leave you.” There are very simple heart rending strains here which are easily lost if this piece is played too slowly.

Cor de Jong performed on the Maarschalkerweerd organ at Leiden in Holland, perhaps just before the end of February, this year.

4. Herzlich tut mich erfreuen

“Heartfelt acts please me,” admonishes one to do virtuous actions from the heart as they please the Almighty.

Anne-Gaëlle Chanon performed on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Cathedral of St. Omer in Saint-Omer, France as part of a recital on 29 September, 2012 (had you been one of the lucky ones to have been there).

An alternate version, an arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), here

Paul Jacobs (1930-1983) of Bach Busoni fame, plays this. [Jacobs was an American pianist best known for his performances of twentieth-century music, who also gained recognition for his work with early keyboards, performing frequently with Baroque ensembles. Jacobs was the New York Philharmonic's official pianist (from 1961) and harpsichordist (from 1974) until his death. He held the post during the tenure of three music directors.]

“Dress up oh dear soul,” is perhaps a song to call Christian believers into recalling the coming wedding feast that is to be attended by all the invited ... sometime long after we are all dead.

Giuseppe Raccuglia performed on the Klais organ of St. Peter's Church, Badenweiler (Germany), sometime before April, 2011.

An alternate version, an arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), here 

Paul Jacobs (1930-1983) of Bach Busoni fame, plays this.

6. O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen

As possible reference to the Virgin Mary; if you would be blessed, be faithful as she was blessed.

Gerard van Reenen performed on a harmonium built by Alexandre, Paris 1880, sometime before June, 2012.
7. O Gott, du frommer Gott

Literally, “God, you faithful God” is nevertheless in a minor key and meditates on perhaps all those ways in which we could not possibly fathom God's beneficence.

Kay Johannsen performed on the Mühleisen organ at the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart (Germany) in 2011.

8. Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen 

Perhaps the most famous piece of the lot, it would be another setting of “Lo how a rose e'er blooming,” but you can't tell because it isn't the same song from the English late middle ages we may have known from our own childhoods long ago. What is clear about this one, maybe more than any of the others in this set, is that it really betrays its author as Brahms with just about every phrase.

Lorenzo Antinori performed on the Morettini organ in the Basilica Concattedrale di Cagli in Italy at a concert there in 2012.

Alternate version, arranged by Harold Bauer (1873-1951) here 

Performed by John Peace 2011, Wendover Studios. He thereafter plays #11, #10 and #4.
9. Herzlich tut mich verlangen

This is another refrain, “heartfelt actions are required of me.” We are free to imagine why this was left here for us to ponder. What could have been on Brahms mind as he contemplated his own death is beyond our comprehension.

Duo Tal & Groethuysen, piano recorded on 30th of January 2011 at the Church of Rougemont during the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad (Switzerland) 2011. Piano arrangements like this is how more of these chorale preludes can reach more people.

10. Herzlich tut mich verlangen (second version)

More “Heartfelt acts please me,” so is Brahms pleading for his eternal life? Of course, we'll never know.

Jolanda Zwoferink performed on the Marcussen organ Sint-Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, Holland sometime before 16 February, 2010.

An alternate version, transcribed by Feruccio Busoni here

Performed by Akamatsu, Rintaro.

11. O Welt, ich muss dich lassen

Concluding with more “Oh World, I leave you.” Perhaps at last, both Brahms and we ourselves may find peace and rest for our souls.

Bernard Lagacé, 1978, performed on the Wolff Organ at the Eighth Church of Christ, Scientist, New York City, Titanic, serial number TI-38. The organ was built in 1977 by Hellmuth Wolff of Montreal.

Bonus! Prelude and Fugue in g MinorOp. Post #10

Christian Barthen performed on the organ in the Basilica of St. John in Saarbrücken, Germany.

Thank-you for examining with me the last works of Johannes Brahms.