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Work

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms Composer

4 Ballades, Op.10   

Performances: 38
Tracks: 113
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Musicology:
  • 4 Ballades, Op.10
    Year: 1854
    Genre: Other Keyboard
    Pr. Instrument: Piano
    • 1.Andante in D-
    • 2.Andante in D
    • 3.Intermezzo in B-
    • 4.Andante con moto in B
These four works operate as a set and should be played that way. Even though the first Ballade has an inscription that it is based on Herder's translation of the Scottish ballad Edward, no one has found proof that the other three are linked to this story in any way. Whether there was an underlying literary connection in Brahms' mind hardly matters though, as the four Ballades are linked into a dramatic narrative in so compelling a manner that some commentators consider this an unlabeled sonata. Stylistically it is rather more advanced than the earlier sonatas, and anticipates the First Piano Concerto. The first Ballade, Andante, in D minor, opens with a slow and grim march, which is followed by a bold and dramatic central Allegro and concludes with a variation of the opening. The second Ballade, Andante, in D major, is structured much the same way. The opening though, is lyrical while the central episode is substantially longer and more varied than in the first Ballade. Brahms labeled the third Ballade in B minor Intermezzo. The three-part plan is reversed, with the faster music surrounding a slower central section. The tone of this scherzo-like piece is fantastic and lugubrious, but in spite of this, it seems to bridge the gap emotionally between the heroic and epic tone of the first two Ballades to the lyrical and wistful final Ballade. This concluding piece in B major is more complex structurally than its predecessors, although the principal tone is lyrical rather than dramatic. The entire set is an early masterpiece, entirely original and effective.



© All Music Guide

1.Andante in D-

Although opus numbers can be misleading (in that they don't always indicate order of composition), it is worth noting that Johannes Brahms used the pianoforte as the backbone of each of his first ten compositions—there are works for piano solo, song-sets for voice and piano, and one piano trio (Op. 8). It was only after composing the four ballades for solo piano, Op. 10, that Brahms felt sufficiently comfortable with his powers to move away from the piano; perhaps this was because the four works of Op. 10 in some ways represent a peroration of his musical processes up to that point (1854)—four corners that describe a square: something closed, after which the best and most fruitful course was a new one. The first of those four corners, the Ballade for piano in D minor, Op. 10, No. 1, is based on the ballad-poem "Edward" by Johann Gottfried Herder (adapted from a Scottish folk-ballad).

The Ballade in D minor, Op. 10, No. 1, is by no means, however, a tone poem in any real sense of the word: Brahms took only general elements of ambiance and, to a certain degree, shape from the 14-stanza poem, allowing them to inform but not define the simple, compact ternary form of the musical work. The music opens almost as would a song to Herder's text—the words of the first couplet fit Brahms' melody syllable-to-note (the cry "Edward! Edward!" in plaintive descending octaves), and one can make a case for the second couplet as well. After this, however, the treatment is freer and follows no such text-setting plan. The music of the opening section is purely homophonic, almost chorale-like, and appropriately archaic sounding, quiet, and tense. The central D major portion is by contrast rich and warm, with pulsating triplets and a noble rising melody in the low register. One might argue that such a dramatic change of mood is utterly unjustified by the poem (as is the ternary structure), but perhaps Brahms was imaginatively delving underneath the poetic surface to create his own vision of the characters' (Edward and his mother) complex nature and history. This robust central section makes its way seamlessly back into the opening music, which gradually simmers down into a mire of tragedy, dismay, and drudgery—the curse Edward places on his mother finds frighteningly apt expression in Brahms' music.

© All Music Guide

2.Andante in D

The title Ballade was first used for a piano piece by Chopin with the publication in 1836 of his Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. Eventually he would compose four such works, in which the form is based on discursive thematic development organized in a rather free, rhapsodic manner. Some find a narrative intention in Chopin's Ballades, although the composer never mentioned any literary connections. Brahms, on the other hand, indicated a specific literary inspiration for the first of his Four Ballades, Op. 10. The piece's heading reads, "After the Scottish ballad 'Edward' in Herder's Stimmen der Völker (Voices of the Folk), leading Paul Mies to suggest that Brahms originally intended to compose a vocal work but abandoned this idea. (In 1877, Brahms would again treat the "Edward" catastrophe by setting the poem in his Four Ballads and Romances for two voices, Op. 75, No. 1.) Unlike Chopin's Ballades, Brahms' feature clear formal structures.

Composed during the summer of 1854, the Four Ballades, Op. 10, were published in 1856 by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. Brahms dedicated the set to lifelong friend Julius Otto Grimm.

Brahms was concerned with harmonic unity in the layout of the entire set. Opening in D minor, Ballade No. 1 closes in D major, the key of No. 2. The central section of No. 2 is in B major, which bears a relationship to B minor (the relative minor of D major), the opening key of No. 3, which itself closes in B major, the key of No. 4.

Mies' assertion that Brahms intended the first of the Four Ballades, in D minor/major, to be a vocal work is supported by the fit between the opening melody and the first line of the ballad "Edward," which Brahms gives as the inspiration for the piece. Similarly, the melody of the slow movement from the Op. 2 sonata fits the words of a German Minnelied, "Mir ist leide."

Cast in an overall three-part (ABA') structure, the Ballade features divisions within its larger sections. For example, section A consists of a two-part melody, the first marked Andante and the second Poco più moto. This complex sounds twice but with some important changes the second time. Whereas the first Andante phrase prepares for the tonic, D minor, but moves deceptively to B flat major for the Poco più moto segment, the repeat of the Andante phrase actually closes on the dominant of B flat, creating a genuine move away from the tonic. Furthermore, the ensuing repeat of the Poco più moto phrase becomes harmonically ambiguous; its stop on the final tonic chord does not sound like a return to the tonic, in part because the chord consists of only D naturals and A naturals-no third-preparing for the sudden shift to major for the central section. As in the A section, the B section melody is built from moving chords, but at a faster tempo. Growing intensity has led one writer to claim that the central section describes the "Edward" tragedy. A return to D minor ushers in material that is a variation of the Andante melody, which quietly sneaks in, featuring a new accompaniment, just before the close of the piece, bypassing the Poco più moto phrase.

© All Music Guide

4.Andante con moto in B

The title Ballade was first used for a piano piece by Chopin with the publication in 1836 of his Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. Eventually he would compose four such works, in which the form is based on discursive thematic development organized in a rather free, rhapsodic manner. Some find a narrative intention in Chopin's Ballades, although the composer never mentioned any literary connections. Brahms, on the other hand, indicated a specific literary inspiration for the first of his Four Ballades, Op. 10. The piece's heading reads, "After the Scottish ballad 'Edward' in Herder's Stimmen der Völker (Voices of the Folk), leading Paul Mies to suggest that Brahms originally intended to compose a vocal work but abandoned this idea. (In 1877, Brahms would again treat the "Edward" catastrophe by setting the poem in his Four Ballads and Romances for two voices, Op. 75, No. 1.) Unlike Chopin's Ballades, Brahms' feature clear formal structures.

Composed during the summer of 1854, the Four Ballades, Op. 10, were published in 1856 by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. Brahms dedicated the set to lifelong friend Julius Otto Grimm.

Brahms was concerned with harmonic unity in the layout of the entire set. Opening in D minor, Ballade No. 1 closes in D major, the key of No. 2. The central section of No. 2 is in B major, which bears a relationship to B minor (the relative minor of D major), the opening key of No. 3, which itself closes in B major, the key of No. 4.

Brahms' adroit exploitation of key relationships in the fourth Ballade betray the tendency of nineteenth-century composers to blur the distinction between major and minor modes.

Despite the close of the third Ballade on B major, and the B major key signature of the fourth Ballade, Brahms opens No. 4 with a B minor arpeggio, only to reiterate the passage in the next measure on B major. As we will see, this is an anticipatory gesture with long-range implications. The arpeggio figure continues throughout the A section of the two-part, ABA'B' piece, while the melody floats restfully above, generally moving one note per 3/4 measure. Brahms' predilection for variation surfaces after the literal repeat of the opening theme, which is followed by a lengthy sub-section based on a variation of the first theme. A shift to 6/4 meter and B major herald the beginning of the central section, in which the melody, suspiciously similar to that of section A, is buried in the middle of busy triplet figures. After following the same pattern of repetition we hear section A, section B closes on the dominant, F sharp major, and gives way to the altered return of A. Skipping the repeat, Brahms rewrites the second half of A, using block chords to present an inverted version of the original melody. Near the end of the section we hear a more easily recognizable reference to the melody, shortly before the modified return of B. As the B section unfolds on B minor we become aware of the implications of the B minor arpeggio in the very first measure. Cut to nearly half its original size, the section continues in B minor until the last few measures, witnessing a shift to the major. Brahms' tonal flip-flopping at the end makes it seem as though he has closed a minor key piece in the major, when the piece was in the major all along.

© John Palmer, Rovi
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