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The Curious Chorale Preludes of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms' last work was composed for an instrument he’d not written for in decades, in a style that harkened back to J.S. Bach. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on Brahms' chorale preludes for organ.

Organist Peter Richard Conte talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about his approach to playing Brahms' Chorale Preludes.

Radio script:

[MUSIC: Chorale no. II : Herzliebtster Jesu]

Susan Lewis: Brahms wrote the 11 preludes in 1896, soon after the death of his dear friend, Clara Schumann. The short liturgical pieces, used to elaborate hymn tunes during a service, recall the music of J.S. Bach.    

Why go back to Bach? Organist Peter Richard Conte.

Peter Richard Conte: Brahms studied and he revered the works of Bach, as he did with many of the earlier composers. Indeed, many of these chorale preludes of Brahms have almost companions in Bach, especially No. 2 Herzliebster Jesu. It has the same structure. Very, very tight contrapuntal structure. The difference is that Brahms adds the romantic harmony.

SL:  So listeners can hear in these works a bit of Bach and Brahms, who also left a lot of latitude to the performing organist.

PRC: He wrote them on basically two staves, for left hand and right hand; occasionally, there’s a pedal part. But some of the inner tunes are buried, and in my transcription mind, I’m thinking, if he were orchestrating this he would have, maybe, brought out that tenor line on a French horn. So I’m doing that, I’m bringing them out on a pedal French horn, in fact. 

SL:  The chorale preludes, not published until five years after his death, turned out to be Brahms’ last work. From one of the greatest composers of symphonies, chamber works, a requiem and more—a collection of short pieces that honor the past, reflect his own time, and continue to be re-interpreted today.

On Sunday, September 24th, listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert on WRTI from 1 to 3 pm. The program includes a selection of Brahms' chorale preludes. Four are played by Peter Richard Conte on organ only, and three are played by the orchestra, which commissioned transcriptions for the occasion.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.