The Organ

The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms

Barbara Owen: The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-19-531107-5

Brahms is not generally thought of as a composer of organ music, yet his small corpus of compositions for the instrument is highly regarded and, as Barbara Owen points out, provides a major pointer to the composer’s creative development more broadly. The monograph is divided into two parts. In the first, Owen explores the background to Brahms’ interest in the organ. Chapter one studies the composer’s life and work, finding much interesting evidence regarding his knowledge of the organ, and his interaction with organists and organ music. Chapter two looks at the influence on Brahms of Bach, counterpoint and the chorale. As Owen points out, Brahms was one of the few to ‘take up’ where ‘Mendelssohn left off’ in terms of use of chorale melodies in his work, albeit not for organ. The final chapter of the first part of the book considers the composer as a reviser of his music, especially towards the end of his life. This material is pertinent not only to the organ music, but more generally and Owen makes a most valuable contribution to Brahms studies.

The second part of the book considers the organ music. Chapter four looks at the early compositions for the instrument. This section – like the rest of the book – is scholarship of the highest order. Owen combines a detailed analysis of the music with biographical and historical material to provide both context and critical analysis of the compositions. Chapter five focuses on the eleven chorale preludes – arguably the best-known and most-loved of the oeuvre – with Owen again drawing on a wide range of scholarly sources in her detailed analysis of each prelude. The chapter ends with a fascinating review of the effect of this music on other composers, including many in the ‘Anglo-American’ tradition. The sixth and final chapter considers the interpretation of Brahms’ organ music, with special reference to instruments that the composer would have known, as well as other relevant ones of the period, the tempi, stop registration and performance practice more generally. This is a most valuable section for performers and I commend it most warmly to readers. There are a number of useful appendices: editions of the music; details of organs ‘in Brahms’ world’; a list of organ transcriptions of works by Brahms. There are also extensive notes, a full bibliography and useful discography and a fine index. This is scholarship of the highest order and Barbara Owen is to be congratulated on this comprehensive study – a wonderful addition to the literature. I recommend the book very highly indeed, not least as an example of what the best scholarship should look like.