Music I Love: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, by Brahms

Work: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8
Composer: Johannes Brahms
Year: 1854 (Original Version); 1889 (Final Version)


  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Allegro molto – Trio (Meno allegro)
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale (Allegro)

Brahms is a fascinating composer to me; aside from the beauty and passion of his music, he was a notorious perfectionist, burning old manuscripts if he felt they weren’t up to his standard – even years after he originally wrote them. His piano trio in B – listed as his first, and only his eighth composition ever – is dated 1889, only eight years before Brahms’ death in 1897. Brahms wasn’t a particularly prolific composer – following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, but he wrote more than eight works in his lifetime.

The reason his first piano trio has such a late composition date is because it was, in fact, originally written in 1854, when Brahms was only twenty-one. A sprawling opus, it’s one of the few surviving early manuscripts that Brahms left behind; so many others were lost to his passion for perfection. Brahms rewrote the piano trio in 1889, significantly shortening several movements and almost completely rewriting others.

It’s interesting, because to listen to the two versions side by side doesn’t immediately reveal one as better than the other; in many ways, they’re simply different. The opening melody of the first movement, introduced on piano for a few measures before the cello and violin enter, is heart-meltingly beautiful, and luckily one of the things Brahms didn’t change, but it isn’t long before the two pieces diverge, and don’t really come back again at all.

It brings up the complex relationship between the artist and the audience. If Brahms had had his way, no one would ever be aware of the 1854 version of the work; we’d all only know (and the version that is most often performed, is, of course) the 1889 version. But are they two distinct works? Or is one simply a revision of the other, to be known and played whilst the original settles to dust?

Once published, who does art belong to? Does the artist have the right to retract a piece of music that, for thirty-five years, stood untouched and was beloved the world over? What happens to the original, when the new one is so significantly changed?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this, but it is a curiosity that, in this instance, we have the ability to hear what Brahms thought was good music at twenty-one, and to hear his opinion of that same music at fifty-six (clearly he didn’t care for most of it).

As for me, I’ll gladly listen to either version – from the gloriously melodic opening of the first movement (one of Brahms’ best melodies by far) to the jittery unease of the Scherzo and the passion of the Finale, this is easily one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.

Music I Love: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, by Tchaikovsky

Work: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Composer: Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky
Year: 1878


  1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima
  2. Andantino in modo di canzona
  3. Scherzo (Allegro)
  4. Finale (Allegro con fuoco)

I’ve written before about my love for Tchaikovsky’s music – in particular the emotional drama of his sixth symphony, the Pathétique. Growing up on a musical diet of classical- and romantic-era compositions, Tchaikovsky represented to me the pinnacle of angst and turmoil, with his grandiose themes and bombastic orchestrations. Even after I discovered the high-octane energy and gothic tragedy of rock and metal, Tchaikovsky remained a staple of my musical journey, and one I frequently return to when I’m feeling emotional, dramatic, or simply in need of something more refined and cultured than blast beats.

In fairness, I could write lovingly about almost any of Tchaikovsky’s compositions – from the pomp and flair of his first piano concerto to the subtle tensions of his Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture – but one work that stands out to me, for its thematic inventiveness, intricate orchestration and Mozartian way in which the material is combined in the finale, is his fourth symphony in F minor. From the militaristic brass of the introduction to the dizzying scales of the finale, this is one of Tchaikovsky’s most musically memorable works, along with the Nutcracker suite and the 1812 Overture.

It’s also one of his leanest symphonies – even the first movement, at nearly twenty minutes long, doesn’t outstay its welcome. The material is presented, developed and recapitulated in equal measure, with each theme weaving seamlessly into the next, and yet distinct and separable all the same. As is usual for Tchaikovsky, he leans heavily on the brass instruments to carry the weight of the music, but the dancing woodwinds and dashing string scales bring a levity to what might otherwise have been overly heavy material.

The second movement, a traditional slow movement, is lyrical and sparse, a delicate balance of strings and woodwinds presenting new material whilst harkening back to the quieter moments of the first movement. The scherzo is utterly unique, played almost entirely on pizzicato strings and scattered flutes and oboes, with a short melodious middle and a recap that builds to a false crescendo before fading out into the blasting opening of the finale.

And what a finale! Crashing cymbals and screaming strings back percussive, staccato horns and trumpets at full blast in F Major – a joyous, bombastic retelling of the first movement’s dark and ominous opening notes. Furious flurries of string and woodwind scales move things forward with relentless drive, until a rising passage of frantic trumpets leads back to the original opening theme from the first movement – an unexpected and brilliant connection of the start and end of the symphony. And when the finale’s main theme triumphantly returns with double-time brass chords to close out the movement and the work, it’s impossible not to be flush with excitement and sheer enthusiasm for the breakneck pace of the music.

Tchaikovsky undoubtedly suffered from a great deal in his lifetime, and some of his works indicate a strong possibility of bipolar disorder; if so, this certainly represents a period of manic joy – a kind of feverish ecstasy, a blinding brightness that no despair can overcome, and an enduring sense that anything, any wrong, can be overcome with enough positivity.

I listen to this symphony when I need to feel energy; I listen to it when I need to feel calm. I listen to it when I need a reminder that not all in the world is doom and gloom – and, simply, when I want a break from the turn-it-to-eleven mentality of heavy metal.

This is one of Tchaikovsky’s underrated masterpieces, and I highly encourage you to seek out a good recording today.

Music I Love: “Symphony no. 5”, Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)

bee5_1_mThis is one my favorite works of music. Before you decry it as an obvious choice, let me point out that there is a lot more to this symphony than meets the ear. Aside from the obvious popularity of the opening movement, there is a lot to be enjoyed in the remaining three, including some musical moments that are, essentially, groundbreaking.

Nearly everything Ludwig van Beethoven composed is simply genius (I say nearly – I’m not all that fond of the cello sonatas), but in his early works he tends to stick to the tried and true forms of the classical era. He deviates, pushes the boundaries, but his first four symphonies, the multitude of piano sonatas, and even the violin concerto, still retain obvious and strong connections to the classical stoicism of the past.

So what makes the fifth symphony, written in 1808, so different? The first movement is in a nearly textbook sonata form; the second is a kind of theme and variation; the third a straight scherzo; the fourth a massive but unmistakable rondo. Structurally, there is little here to suggest anything that would upheave the musical dogma for everything to come.

Yet it’s usually accepted that Beethoven forms the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras; Mozart and Haydn before, Schubert and Mendelssohn after. But at what point can we say that Beethoven was a Romantic composer, and not a Classical one?

Often it’s considered the ninth symphony, with its sprawling themes and instrumental excess, but for me I feel like it traces back to his fifth symphony. The main reason for this is not because of his structure, or indeed his themes, which are (the second movement aside) hardly lyrical. It is because of the emotional drama that he infuses every single note of the symphony with. From the first notes, starting on a weak beat (beat 2.5 out of 4, as it were) yet played with immense force, to the intense finale with its pounding C major arpeggio, the symphony drags the listener into a maelstrom of violent and tempestuous musical material, and doesn’t let go until the clamorous final notes, a single enormous C major chord stretched to infinity.

Though emotion was not anathema to Baroque and Classical composers, it was handled with restraint. Even Mozart’s final symphony, one of the most ingenious and complex pieces he ever wrote, doesn’t linger on any one theme, and moves on throughout its movements with poise and dignity, but never with untamed, rampant joy. Beethoven’s fifth symphony, however, oozes emotion, a roller coaster of joy and fury, of exuberance and despair.

It is this, more than its structure, that t0 me marks the turning point between the Classical and the Romantic eras. Even the most sophisticated Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mahler still made use of classic sonata, binary, minuet and trio, and rondo forms; it was emotion that these composers sought to infuse their music with. To me, this is the first time a composer did so on such a grand scale.

Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

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