No 1: D minor: Andante
No 2: D major: Andante
No 3: B minor: Intermezzo
No 4: B minor: Andante con moto
Dein Schwert, wie ist’s von Blut so rot? Edward, Edward!
Dein Schwert wie ist’s von Blut so rot, und gehst so traurig her? – O!
O, ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Geier todt, Mutter, Mutter!
O, ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Geier todt, und keinen hab’ ich wie er – O!
Why does your Brand sae drop wi’ blude, Edward, Edward,
Why does your Brand sae drop wie blude, and why sae sad gang ye, O?
O, I hae kill’d my hawk, sae gude, mither, mither,
O, I hae kill’d my hawk, sae gude, and I had nae mehr but he, O
Rather, Brahms’s designation indicates a freer relation, an allusion to these words, enabling the piano to capture the contrast between the mother’s questioning (in the opening ‘Andante’) and the son’s response (‘poco più moto’), without the rigid poetic repetitions. Furthermore, Brahms creates a rounded musical form, with development in the major key and varied reprise, which, though it cannot mirror the mounting tension of the relentless questioning, revelations and final curse of the son—‘the curse of hell fraie me sall ye bare … sic counsels ye gave to me, O!’—enables a more powerful musical form to be built. The fragmenting reprise of the opening question is perhaps intended as an ironic reflection on it by the composer—his means of communicating the real truth. With its bleak bare intervals, its stark rhythmic repetitions, its developmental reiterations of the son’s response with a relentless triplet accompaniment of orchestral force, and finally its disintegrating reprise, the piece stands as nothing other than an extraordinary tone poem for piano. And, through its similarities to the first movement of the F minor sonata, it makes one sense even more strongly a hidden background to that movement.
No programmatic hints are provided for Ballades 2, 3 and 4, but the intense contrasts of Nos 2 and 3 suggest that more may have been present than the score indicates. In No 2, the reflective opening section, an ‘Andante’ based on a typically Brahmsian gapped figure (rising F sharp – A – F sharp), yields to an extensive central section at twice the speed (‘Allegro non troppo’), with an insistent rhythm rising from mf to ff that recalls the dramatic cumulation of the ‘Edward’ ballade. Also enclosed is a highly atmospheric ‘molto staccato e leggiero’ passage before a subtly varied reprise of the opening. Atmospheric keyboard effects are even more evident in No 3. Though titled ‘Intermezzo’, this is an extraordinary scherzo in 6/8 metre, with the same rhythmic impact as Brahms’s very first published piano work, the Scherzo in E flat minor Op 4 of 1851, yet with a much more elusive and dramatic quality, perhaps suggesting a nether world of demons or sprites. The middle section explores high-lying chordal sonorities, then, in contrast, single sounds at the extremes of the keyboard, marked ppp. These dynamic features effect a complete transformation of the opening section when it returns, now marked ‘sempre pp molto leggiero’. Such extraordinary writing shows how much Brahms understood his own instrument, and to what extent his style discarded such expressionistic features as he moved, after 1854, to different genres and to a focus on the more formal demands of large-scale chamber and orchestral composition.
Only in No 4 does an attributable style emerge—a Schumannesque song melody and accompaniment alternates with a section of intimate decoration of a slow inner-voice melody (again very Schumann-like) before the varied reprise of both. Now the first section is given an entirely new chordal sequel, while the second, transposed into B minor, is fashioned into a coda with wistful returns of the opening phrase that gradually motion the music towards its eventual serene close in the major key of B.
from notes by Michael Musgrave © 2001