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Imagination and Memory: Inter-movement Thematic Recall in Beethoven and Brahms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2021


Like several of his predecessors, Brahms reintroduces themes from one movement into a later one in several of his instrumental works. Historical circumstances and changing historical consciousness affected a composer's use of thematic recall. For Beethoven (per Elaine Sisman) recalling an earlier theme provided the creative stimulus to move forward to the end of a piece, in accordance with the linear concept of history that defined Beethoven's Enlightenment world view. Brahms's use of inter-movement thematic recall often expresses a more wistful and melancholy view of the past and focuses on the ability of recall to provide a dramatic narrative. In his earliest use of cyclical return, the Op. 5 Piano Sonata (1853), the Andante second movement is echoed and transformed by the ‘Ruckblick’ fourth movement, as Brahms plays on the poetic inscription of the former movement to raise the specter of lost love and mortality. In a more complex web of thematic recall, the op. 78 Violin Sonata (1878) combines allusions to a pre-existing pair of interrelated songs from his Op. 59 with a newly composed, recurring instrumental theme to create a multi-layered, somber character in the piece. Both of those works draw on an earlier, romantic sense of yearning for return. Near the end of his career, however, the quiet emergence and eventual dissipation of opening material at the close of the Op. 115 Clarinet Quintet (1891) reflects Brahms's awareness of his place at the end of an artistic tradition, and thereby conveys a post-Romantic conception of history.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2021

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1 Walter Frisch notes that the poco meno presto is itself a transformed version of the boisterous E-flat major theme, forming a recapitulation within a quasi-sonata form in the movement. See his Brahms: The Four Symphonies (New York: Schirmer, 1996): 127–8.

2 Taylor, Benedict, Mendelssohn, Time and Memory: the Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 22–3Google Scholar.

3 Taylor, Mendelssohn, Time and Memory, 19. Taylor cites Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971): 159Google Scholar. Abrams's entire Part Three (pp. 143–95) deals extensively with the concept of departure and return.

4 Also noteworthy in this category is the transposed return of the orchestral introduction (from E-flat to C major) to close the Schicksalslied, Op. 54.

5 Sisman, Elaine, ‘Memory and Invention at the Threshold of Beethoven's Late Style’, in Beethoven and His World, ed. Burnham, Scott and Steinberg, Michael P. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 5187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Taylor, Mendelssohn, Time and Memory, 51.

7 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 55. Charles Neate, who spent time with Beethoven in 1815 and recalled to the biographer Alexander Thayer in 1861 that Beethoven said ‘I always have a picture in my mind, when I am composing’ (Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 55).

8 Notley, Margaret, Lateness and Brahms: Music and Culture in the Twilight of Viennese Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brinkmann, Reinhold, Late Idyll: The Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

9 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 55

10 Hatten, Robert, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994): 91111Google Scholar. Hatten addresses yearning on p. 100.

11 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 68.

12 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 72.

13 These works are cited in Sisman's Table 1 (‘Memory and Invention’, 52).

14 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 78.

15 Sisman, ‘Memory and Invention’, 56.

16 Brahms is reported to have told his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, ‘I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how one feels, when one always hears the footsteps of a giant marching behind him’. See Kalbeck, Max, Johannes Brahms (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms Gesellschaft, 1921): 1: 165Google Scholar.

17 Frisch, Brahms: The Four Symphonies, 59–60; Brodbeck, David, Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 63–4Google Scholar.

18 Frisch, ‘The Snake Bites Its Tail: Cyclic Processes in Brahms's Third String Quartet, Op. 67’, Journal of Musicology 22 (2005): 160. Although many have dealt with the topic, Frisch provides the most direct and succinct summary of Brahms's use of thematic recall.

19 On the Romantics’ connections among instrumental music, language, and poetry, see Bonds, Mark Evan, ‘Idealism and the Aesthetics of Instrumental Music at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 50 (1997): 387420CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Rosen, Charles, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

21 Dahlhaus, Carl, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. Robinson, J. Bradford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989): 145Google Scholar.

22 Brahms's very first opus, the Piano Sonata in C major, takes the folk song ‘Verstohlen geht der Mond auf’ as a theme for a set of variations in its second movement (with the first stanza of the text set beneath the staff). The first of the Op. 10 Ballades bears the inscription ‘On the Scottish Ballad “Edward” in Herder's “Voice of the Folk”’. Similarly, the score of the third and last of Brahms's piano sonatas, Op. 5 in F minor, includes a poetic inscription before the second movement. The latter work is discussed in detail below.

23 Sholes, Allusion as Narrative Premise in Brahms's Instrumental Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018): 42. Another frequently cited thematic recall between the outer movements of Op. 1 begins at bar 125 in the rondo finale, where Brahms recalls a passing theme from the second group of the first movement's exposition (bars 39ff.). See Frisch, ‘The Snake Bites its Tail’, 156–7.

24 MacDonald, Malcolm, Brahms (New York: Schirmer, 1990): 69Google Scholar.

25 As George Bozarth notes, the ‘Rückblick’ fourth movement of the F minor Piano Sonata fits a pattern Brahms employed in several song opuses, in which two poems are set with music that is noticeably similar. These include ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ and ‘In der Ferne’ (Ludwig Uhland), Op. 19, Nos. 2 and 3; ‘Regenlied’ and ‘Nachklang’ (Klaus Groth), Op. 59, Nos. 3 and 4; and ‘Sommerabend’ and ‘Mondenschein’ (Heine), Op. 85, Nos. 1 and 2. Bozarth also cites the two ‘Liebe und Frühling’ (Hoffmann von Fallersleben), Op. 3 Nos. 2 and 3 as an example, although there the second song is merely a slightly revised version of the first. See Bozarth, ‘Brahms's Lieder ohne Worte: The “Poetic” Andantes of the Piano Sonata’, in Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives: Papers Delivered at the International Brahms Conference, Washington, DC, 5–8 May 1983, ed. George Bozarth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 360.

26 Bozarth, ‘Brahms's Lieder ohne Worte’, 349.

27 Bozarth, ‘Brahms's Lieder ohne Worte’, 360.

28 Bozarth, ‘Brahms's Lieder ohne Worte’, 364. Bozarth credits Kalbeck, Max (Johannes Brahms, 4th edn (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1921): 1: 121)Google Scholar with having first suggested the connection to the second Sternau poem.

29 See note 23 above.

30 Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, 88.

31 Berry, Paul, Brahms Among Friends: Listening, Performance, and the Rhetoric of Allusion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 231–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Berry, Brahms Among Friends, 265.

33 Notley, Margaret, ‘Discourse and Allusion: The Chamber Music of Brahms’, in Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, ed. Hefling, Stephen E. (New York: Schirmer, 1998): 265Google Scholar.

34 Berry, Brahms Among Friends, 263–4.

35 Frisch, ‘The Snake Bites Its Tail: Cyclic Processes in Brahms's Third String Quartet, op. 67’, Journal of Musicology 22 (2005): 168.

36 Walter Frisch writes, ‘The transformation of the main theme at the end is not so much a return to where we started as it is an emblem of how far we have come’ (Frisch, ‘The Snake Bites Its Tail’, 158).

37 A long-standing assertion that the frequent use of the motive F-A-F stood for ‘Frei aber froh’ (free but happy) as Brahms's answer to Josef Joachim's musical motto F-A-E (‘Frei aber einsam’) has been discredited. The idea stems from Brahms's friend and early biographer Max Kalbeck, who never ascribed the idea to Brahms. Kalbeck's notion of F-A-F as a personal motto for Brahms was put to rest by Michael, Musgrave in ‘Frei aber Froh: A Reconsideration’, 19th-Century Music 3 (1980): 251–8Google Scholar. Musgrave cites Kalbeck, Max, Johannes Brahms, 2nd edn (Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1908–16): 1: 98Google Scholar.

38 However, commentators have long noticed a musical allusion in the exposition of the first movement (bars 31–35) to the Venusberg music in Wagner's Tannhauser. These connections are analysed by David Brodbeck in ‘Brahms, the Third Symphony, and the New German School’, in Brahms and his World, rev. edition, ed. Walter Frisch and Kevin C. Karnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009): 95–116.

39 Morgan, Robert, ‘6 Piano Pieces, Opus 118’, in The Compleat Brahms, ed. Botstein, Leon (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999): 194Google Scholar.

40 Morgan, ‘6 Piano Pieces, Opus 118’, 195.

41 Kramer, Lawrence, Why Classical Music Matters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 35–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Kramer, Why Classical Music Matters, 64–5.

43 Clara Schumann/Johannes Brahms: Briefe aus den Jahren 1853–1896, ed. Berthold Litzmann (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1927): 2: 562.