I’ve had Brahms on the brain lately. In a recent New Yorker column, Grieving with Brahms, Alex Ross writes movingly about the death of his mother, and the solace of the composer’s “sadness that glows with understanding”. This glow is something that I’ve also found in Brahms, especially in the Deutsches Requiem, his late piano music, and the very late eleven Chorale Preludes for organ (written in 1896 but published posthumously). One might say that, whether consciously or not, he was writing his own epitaph with these pieces, whose chorale sources are predominately concerned with endings, including two settings of ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’, ‘O world, I must leave thee’.
Regardless of the biographical reading, always risky in musicology, Brahms’ nostalgia is certainly on show. Simply by writing for the organ, an instrument he had abandoned as a composer nearly forty years prior, he was staking a claim to the tradition of J. S. Bach, while the chorale prelude as a form recalls the Orgelbüchlein, alongside the more ancient works of Pachelbel, Böhm and Buxtehude. But as Ross notes, quoting Nicole Grimes, this is a ‘reflective nostalgia’, which “delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately”. The writing unfolds its own idiom, albeit one occasionally more suited to the piano than the organ, with a few musical nods to the past.
As a consequence of lockdown my musical practice in the outside world as an organist and conductor has ceased for the time being. I made a few attempts to record things on my Korg keyboard at home, but only this week did I light on a project – recording the eleven Brahms chorale preludes as piano pieces, multi-tracking the manuals and pedal parts. These short pieces remind me that despite the stereotype of organists as somewhat detached and unsociable souls, deafening church congregations from our lofts, there is a great deal of humanity and tenderness in the repertoire.
I’ve expediently decided to leave the lengthy opening fugue for now, with the plan to work through numbers two to eleven and then circle back. Number two is a setting of ‘Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen’, ‘Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended’, and recalls two works by J. S. Bach. The harmonic basis is supplied by the chorale setting of the same text in the St Matthew Passion, while the descending diminished sevenths in the Orgelbüchlein setting of ‘Durch Adams Fall’ (BWV 637), are reflected in the diminished fifths which appear throughout the texture of this piece. I think this is perhaps one of the most ‘organistic’ of the set. A fine recording on the organ by Peter Planyavsky can be heard here, and my own rendering is below.
Source: Bond, Ann: ‘Brahms Chorale Preludes, op.122’, The Musical Times, Vol. 112, No. 1543 (Sep., 1971), pp. 898-900.