2 pages, large folio (c.34 x 27cms), 24-stave paper, no place or date [Düsseldorf, probably April-May 1856], several small holes from oxidization of the ink, staining to bottom margin, overall light browning and a few repairs
This manuscript is remarkable in that it shows a work still in the process of composition; such manuscripts are particularly rare with Brahms, who destroyed most of his early sketches and drafts. This creative process is the subject of a highly interesting correspondence with Joseph Joachim to whom Brahms sent another version of the fugue in June 1856. Some of the pencil markings, particularly that at bar 30, apparently relate to Joachim's comments. Brahms had already touched on the subject of fugues, writing to Clara in early February 1856, and referred almost certainly to the present manuscript in a letter of 24 May. The definitive revision of this fugue, fifty-eight bars long, was not published until July 1864, when it appeared as an insert ('Beilage') in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.
Brahms came to stay with the Schumanns in Düsseldorf as their protégé in September 1853 and stayed there throughout much of 1854-1856, becoming extremely close to Clara during Robert's final illness. He apparently presented this manuscript to Clara on her husband's birthday, 8 June 1856, and the warmth of the dedication is testimony to the depth of their relationship. According to his own list of his works, Brahms originally composed the fugue in April 1856. He then refers to it in his letter to Clara ("Geliebteste Clara") of 16 May 1856 (see B. Litzmann, Johannes Brahms Clara Schumann Briefe aus den Jahren 1853-1896, no.100). In 1856 Brahms steeped himself in counterpoint. This fugue, written in the most obscure of keys (with seven flats) and in its archaic notation, is an extraordinarily adroit example of complex fugal form, the answers, unusually, inverting the subject. It was immediately recognised by Joachim as a masterly work. He wrote to Brahms: "From beginning to end it is wonderfully deep; I know few pieces that have made such an impression of unity, beauty, and blissful peace on me." Given Brahms's love of musical cyphers and concealed meanings in his music, it would not be surprising if the A flat minor fugue, with its opaque key and antique notation contained some far deeper reference to Clara as yet undiscovered.
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