The Kennedy Center

Chorale Prelude, Herzliebster Jesu, Op. 122, No. 2

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Peter Laki

Johannes Brahms was not only a great admirer of Bach; he was also engaged in a scholarly study of Bach's music, making copious analytical markings in his copies of the Bach organ works and serving on the editorial board of the Bach complete edition. He started playing Bach on the piano as a child; later he also practiced the organ avidly, and composed several organ works while in his twenties. These works-chorale preludes as well as free preludes with fugues-are among the relatively few pieces by Brahms that were published only after his death.

At first sight, the Prelude in Fugue in G minor, which was preserved among Clara Schumann's papers and first published in 1927, looks like little more than an exercise in Bach's style: the virtuosic prelude includes polyphonic moments alternating with brilliant rapid passagework similarly to some of Bach's early toccatas; the fugue, likewise, confirms that the young man had thoroughly mastered theory and practice of this most complex Baroque musical form. But there is a characteristic, recurrent turn of phrase in the prelude that already sounds like pure Brahms; and the fugue goes beyond Bach in the intricate rhythmic interplay of the voices (long passages of three-note groups, or triplets, against groups of two notes) and uses chromatic half-steps in a way that the Thomaskantor, for all his harmonic boldness, would not have done.

After this youthful group of works, Brahms didn't write for solo organ again until the last year of his life, when he produced the Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122. (He had included organ parts in some of his choral works, including-optionally-in the German Requiem and the Triumphlied.) In this opus ultimum, he reconnected with the North German Protestant tradition in which he had grown up, after spending half his life in Catholic Vienna. Each of the preludes is based on a chorale Bach had also used, and they all employ similar techniques, such as having the traditional chorale melody move in long-held notes against more lively, and newly-composed, contrapuntal voices. At the same time, Brahms's choral preludes do not sound like Bach at all: they sound like Brahms. We can tell by his choice of harmonies, his use of chromatic notes, and many other subtle details.

The second of the 11 preludes, "Herzliebster Jesu" ("O, dearest Jesus") is based on the chorale that runs through Bach's entire St. Matthew Passion. Here Brahms slowed down the melody to half its usual speed, allowing for even more extensive chromatic progressions in the contrapuntal voices. Dispensing with all virtuosic figurations, he created what Barbara Owen, in her 2007 book on Brahms's organ music, calls "a closely woven fabric into which the melody is artfully threaded."