Imagination and Memory: Inter-movement Thematic Recall in Beethoven and Brahms


Like several of his predecessors, Brahms reintroduces themes from one movement into a later one in several of his instrumental works. Historical circumstances and changing historical consciousness affected a composer's use of thematic recall. For Beethoven (per Elaine Sisman) recalling an earlier theme provided the creative stimulus to move forward to the end of a piece, in accordance with the linear concept of history that defined Beethoven's Enlightenment world view. Brahms's use of inter-movement thematic recall often expresses a more wistful and melancholy view of the past and focuses on the ability of recall to provide a dramatic narrative. In his earliest use of cyclical return, the Op. 5 Piano Sonata (1853), the Andante second movement is echoed and transformed by the ‘Ruckblick’ fourth movement, as Brahms plays on the poetic inscription of the former movement to raise the specter of lost love and mortality. In a more complex web of thematic recall, the op. 78 Violin Sonata (1878) combines allusions to a pre-existing pair of interrelated songs from his Op. 59 with a newly composed, recurring instrumental theme to create a multi-layered, somber character in the piece. Both of those works draw on an earlier, romantic sense of yearning for return. Near the end of his career, however, the quiet emergence and eventual dissipation of opening material at the close of the Op. 115 Clarinet Quintet (1891) reflects Brahms's awareness of his place at the end of an artistic tradition, and thereby conveys a post-Romantic conception of history.



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Nineteenth-Century Music Review


Cambridge University Press

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