Hidden Gems: Brahms – Rhapsody in E-flat Major, Op. 119, No. 4

Every once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night with a horrible realization: I haven’t been talking about Brahms enough. So here I am to keep making the case for Brahms’s piano music.

I first heard this piece when I was about ten years old and just starting to really explore repertoire. I had been stumbling my way through a battered piano collection of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (the good old Three B’s!), and this piece was included in the Brahms section. So someone thought it was worth a look. With some practice I was able to play through the first two pages or so and then gave up, but I listened to a MIDI file I found online (really into MIDI in those days of dial-up internet) and confirmed it was a pretty cool piece.

Like the two well-known rhapsodies of Op. 79, this one opens with an extroverted, muscular section. The musical content, with triumphant chords affirming the tonic and dominant, might sound a bit banal, but Brahms keeps it interesting with a consistent scheme of five-bar phrases. In a new idea that sounds like part of a chorale, harmonic leaps abound: we get a sneak peek of E-flat minor as early as the fourth phrase, and then C-flat major as the final destination before a return to the opening E-flat major.

The second subject is based around triplets, as in the Rhapsody in G minor. Here, again, irregular phrase lengths add interest. Brahms sketches out some rough shapes before a new forte treatment of the triplet idea, one that adheres closer to the spirit of the opening.

Then we get a jovial, rippling passage with grace-note yodels (this is the spot where I gave up as a kid). It’s all very pleased with itself until the second subject appears again, now outlined with marker rather than pencil. Brahms’s next trick is a restatement of the first subject in two ways: first a playful staccato texture that fragments the rhythm, then a darker, more abstract representation with some slow arpeggios climbing into the tenor range. I love this part; Brahms employs some pedal bass (always my favorite) and achieves some delicious, understated dissonances. Then the chorale motive from the first section starts to reappear in new harmonic guises. Every iteration is like rotating a kaleidoscope to see new colors.

After a full-on return to the triumphant opening chords, Brahms finishes up in an odd hurry, traveling into darker E-flat minor territory and ending there! Quite a surprise. But looking back at more of the piece, maybe he was dropping clues the whole time that he was heading there.

Brahms’s art is subtle. If you don’t take it at face value, and look at some of the underpinning processes and psychological currents, it’s pretty darn cool. It’s also important to realize the enormous influence of Beethoven in his music. And indeed, in this rhapsody, he takes a Beethovenian approach, using some rudimentary musical materials and working them out. If you’re familiar with the Op. 79 rhapsodies, this is worth a listen as an example of Brahms’s late approach to the form. It is in fact the last piece in the last work he published for piano.

Where to find it in print:

Brahms: Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (Henle)

Brahms: Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 2 (G. Schirmer)

Brahms: Complete Shorter Works (G. Schirmer)

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