Zen for Ten Post 4: Brahms – for your heart

Blog Subscriber Bonus! When you subscribe to the blog and join our email list, you’ll receive a PDF of my flash-fiction story “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I wrote in response to Charles Mingus’s jazz tune of the same name. Subscribe (using the black button on the right), read the story, and then listen here to the music that inspired it.


Welcome back to Storytelling and Sound! This week’s Zen for Ten is more of a Zen for Fifteen, so here’s the breakdown of the video for fast-forwarding. (But I still recommend watching all of it. 🙂 )

Beginning of video: “Why Classical Music?” Thoughts about why we need this music today, how it connects us to each other, how it lets us explore our own feelings and communicate deeply and honestly

At 5:10: Introduction to today’s featured piece

At 8:25: Today’s feature: Intermezzo in E flat, Op. 117 no. 1, by Johannes Brahms

About the music:

Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 is one of my favorite pieces for solo piano. It captures the heart of Brahms’s style as a composer and also points up how powerful, how potent, a gentle piece of music can be, and what depth of emotion it can express.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) never really wanted to be famous. That caused a problem for him, because as a young man – almost overnight, in fact – he became a legend.

It happened because of a work he wrote: his German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem) for chorus and orchestra. Other composers had written requiems, borrowing the Latin text of the Catholic Mass for the dead, but for his requiem Brahms decided to do something different.The Catholic Mass text focused on the person who had died, but Brahms wanted his music to comfort the living. Instead of the Latin words, he chose German poetry, which his audience would connect with and understand.

As it turned out, “understand” was an understatement. The German Requiem blew its first audiences away, starting with the people who heard the premiere of the full work in 1868. If you’ve never heard the piece, you can listen to the second movement (my favorite of the seven) here, as played by the Stockholm Sinfonietta. Imagine that these gorgeous melodies and harmonies have never existed in the world before. Imagine that you’re missing someone who is gone, someone whose loss left a hole in your soul, and you listen to this piece, and for a while that empty place is full again.

Suddenly, as a young man in his thirties, Brahms was a star. Other 19th-century composers, like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, wolfed down acclaim and demanded more. Brahms was different. He was a gentle person, a shy introvert who never wanted to be in the center of things.

He spent the rest of his life trying to cope with his reputation. The Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 is one of his late piano works, written near the end of his life. As we listen to it, we can connect with that person who kept his deepest feelings inside, and let them out only through music. Music let him say what words couldn’t, and let him be his most honest self when the eyes of the world got to be too much.

To me, this piece sums up what classical music can do for us. In this gentle cradle song, Brahms gives us a safe space. “Come and sit with me,” he tells us. “We can talk for a while, or just be quiet together.” He wrote these notes over a hundred years ago, but they can still reach us now and make us whole. That’s magic.

Thought exercise:

Today’s exercise is completely personal. As you listen to the piece, what does it say to you? What feelings or memories does it tap? If it feels right, journal about them.









3 thoughts on “Zen for Ten Post 4: Brahms – for your heart

  1. Randi Anderson

    I like your comments on Brahms as a person — it’s nice to be able to attach a personality and a story to these surnames. I enjoyed your playing, too…thanks!


  2. Pingback: Zen for Ten 5: Want to change the world? Start here. – Kris Faatz

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