Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming J. Brahms (1833–1897)

Chorale Prelude on “What Child is This”

Allegro Burton (1878-1917)

There have been various approaches to Advent/Christmas down through the ages: in our culture we more or less start Christmas on Black Friday (if not much earlier) — a month plus of too many gifts and too much food (I’m reminded of William Blake’s aphorism “You never know what’s enough until you know what’s more than enough!”), and then on December 26 it’s OVER. In Bach’s day, however, Advent was a mini-‘Lent’ — a time of prayer and fasting, and no music in church! Then, on Christmas Day all heaven broke loose, and they celebrated Christmas for Twelve Days. Thus, after the ‘darkness’ of Advent, Christmas would be big and dramatic — something rather like somber Lent leading up to glorious Easter. This also worked out for church composers like Bach as they had the four weeks of Advent to prepare the massive amount of music performed over the Twelve Days. And the Twelve days of Christmas takes you to the next holy-day in the Church year: Epiphany — the day when the Christ was manifested to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

Brahms was born in Hamburg — his father was a horn and double bass player, and his mother (17 years older than her husband) was a seamstress. They lived in poverty near the docks, and teenage Brahms helped put food on the table by playing piano in dance halls. At least that’s the story Brahms told later in life. Many scholars now believe his stories were, um, “greatly exaggerated”, and that his parents afforded him a solid middle-class living and education. We’ll probably never know for sure. We do know that Brahms also conducted choirs from his early teens, and became a proficient choral and orchestral conductor (two rather different specialties, by the way). And he began to compose quite early in life, but later destroyed most copies of his early works — a pattern he continued for the rest of his life. For example, after working on his First Symphony for 15 years, and after several performances, Brahms decided he was not satisfied with the slow movement, destroyed it and wrote a new one just before it was to be published. Meanwhile, a steady stream of performances and new compositions gradually made him ‘an overnight success that was decades in the making’.

At age 57, by then a world famous composer and performer, Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to keep his ‘new years resolution’, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces: his admiration for the clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühfeld inspired him to compose the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 (1894). He also wrote several cycles of piano pieces, Opp. 116–119, and the Vier Ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs), Op. 121 (1896).

His very last opus is for organ — an instrument for which Brahms had previously composed only sporadically or as part of larger choral and instrumental works. During the final year of his life, he turned his attention to pure organ composition with his Eleven Chorale Preludes Op. 122 (1896) from which this morning’s prelude is chosen. After this opus, Brahms died from cancer the next year at age 63, and his set of organ preludes was first published in 1902.