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Chapter 4

Op. 119 ‘Janus’ Brahms: Looking Both Backward and Forward

Op. 119 Four Piano Pieces were the last ones from the Bad Ischl summer of 1893, and as

usual, Brahms sent them to Clara as they were completed. The first one to reach her in May was

No. 1, which delighted Clara with its dreamlike atmosphere and mysterious opening harmonies.

Brahms included a letter, writing: ‘. . . it is crawling with dissonances! These are deemed

appropriate and can be explained. . . . “to be played very slowly” isn’t saying enough. Every

measure and every note must sound ritard. . . .’ (Avins, 1997:706). Clara responded by calling it

a ‘grey pearl’ (Swafford, 1999:586) and commenting that it was ‘. . . so sadly sweet in spite of all

its dissonances’ (Niemann, 1946:243). In June, Brahms sent her No. 2 and 3, writing that he had

started out to compose one piece but the space at the end had made him write another (Cai, 1986:

51). This comment is consistent with the fact that in Brahms’s manuscript, the two pieces are

grouped together. His letter includes the words ‘. . . a good fit for your fingers. However, I

hardly need say that this kind of thing comes absolutely for your fingers alone, and certainly

mustn’t get into anyone else’s’ (Avins: 707). This supports the idea that the pieces were written

for her especially, providing new repertoire suitable for her ailing arms and hands. The

Rhapsodie, the most technically demanding of the four, was sent to her in July, with the remarks

‘. . . it may not be suitable for your fingers’ (Cai: 55).

This last collection of pieces written for Brahms’s favourite instrument is another

heterogeneous group in terms of character, containing the subdued and tonally progressive first

Intermezzo, the second and third Intermezzos dealing with variation form in dance-like music,

and the final heroic Rhapsodie, the most ambitious of all with its broad structure, which provides

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