Entertainment & Media
A Recommendation of Brahms: Op. 39, Sixteen Waltzes
By William Mullin
Volume 2 Issue 1
October 8, 2021
Image provided by Britannica
Brahms’s Op. 39, a set of sixteen waltzes, originally composed of piano four hands, are lucid insights into the human condition. Impressively hypnotizing yet simplistically structured, Brahms’s waltzes are all formatted around introducing a theme, transitioning to a developmental passage to build tension and add variety, and thankfully, again, reprising the theme. Sometimes this repeats or Brahms strays from the formula a bit, but overall, all these pieces can be generalized by this structure. A piece wrapped around a theme. A simple structure, admittedly, but that does not detract from either Brahms’s talent or the beauty of these sixteen waltzes.
To the 21st-century ear, Brahms’s music is surprisingly like western pop music, which has trained us to love choruses, hooks, and refrains. So, when we hear a catchy theme with multiple reprisals -- evident in -- all these pieces, played with differing intensity and interpretation, our brains love it. Ranging from thirty-two seconds to two minutes and twelve seconds, the waltzes are short, bite-sized, thematic pieces of beauty when viewed individually but a concise masterpiece when listened to in totality.
Designed initially for piano four hands, a duet consisting of two individuals typically playing on the same piano or two different pianos, Brahms composed this short set of waltzes in 1865. It was later published in 1866. Vienna’s local music at the time significantly influenced Brahms, for the waltz dance form had become extremely popular there. Translated to the piano, this form is jive-like and danceable but also thought-provoking and intimate. A form that has since become a classic staple in piano repertoire for a reason, with composers of waltzes ranging from Chopin and Liszt to Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.
And I haven’t even begun to speak from the perspective of a pianist, one who has played these pieces. As a listener, yes, these pieces are beautiful. But as one of the players in a duet, these pieces are transcendental. It is necessary to be coordinated with one’s partner, for interpretation is crucial to the evocative nature of these pieces. But, once that synchronization clicks, the duets are two humans speaking to the world through one piano. A dialogue of notes, but unlike any spoken dialogue one has heard. Inflections of the voice could never change the meaning of words as much as the pianists’ individualistic playing of these pieces changes the meaning of the notes.
One enters a flow state when listening to music of any kind, but when playing such evocative music, the pianists enter the mind of the work’s composer. Coupled with dual interpretation, these duets are a rich example of the human phenomenon that is music. It shows in Anna Polonsky’s facial expressions during her performance of the Opus with Emanuel Ax, which is available on YouTube, just how moving these compositions are.
No 1. in B major, the start of this set. An explosive jive-like melody that elicits imagery of a crowd in Vienna dancing with ecstasy. From fierce passion to a lullaby-like melody, Brahms transitions to No. 2 in E major, foreshadowing the tension to be expected in No. 3 in G sharp minor. Without giving too much away, No. 2 resolves, only for the quiet initiation of No. 3 in G-sharp minor, a short passionate ebb and flowing melody that crests and descends beautifully. Then into the expressive, tense, almost scary No. 4 in E minor.
Already a multitude of emotions has been spoken through Brahms that I can only describe poorly and at a surface-level. Brahms instills a wide variety of his soul and humanity into these pieces. It would also be unfair to classify too many of these pieces from my perspective, for it would ruin the surprise of listening to them and interpreting them yourself. This is lyric-less interpretative music (though just because it’s lyric-less does not mean it’s not lyrical). Though I hope my descriptions of the early ones were intriguing enough to sit down and check them out, I feel one would truly be missing out if they did not listen to them in totality at once in their life. A short seventeen minutes, but a beautiful experience that I have had the fortune to listen to multiple times, an experience that has helped me feel more human.
Some notable pieces of the set to check out are No. 7 in C sharp minor, No. 9 in D minor, No. 11 in B minor. That being said, the most popular and widely played waltz of the set is No. 15 in A major. However, this one is much more like a lullaby than any of the others and, personally, is overrated (though still excellent). A must-listen for anyone who wants to admire humanity and a solid recommendation for any classical fanatic.