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The Brahms Horn Tri o Uncovered: Tips to Propel Your Performan ce Forward.

The Brahms Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 is a seminal work that is studied and performed by both students and professionals alike. We have come to know and love this masterpiece; however, there is something mysterious about this work that makes it difficult to perform. It seems as though the first movement of this piece always has a tendency to slow down as the movement progresses. What interferes with the tempo and causes this consistent slow down? It is called the shifting barline and it is a technique that is fairly common in Brahms's music.

The shifting barline occurs when the aural perception of the barline is in conflict with the notated barline. Walter Frisch explains that this occurs most frequently to assist with formal articulation and motivic development. (1) In the first movement, Brahms is intentionally using the shifted barline to create varity in the five-part rondo form.

Peter Smith, in an article titled "Brahms and the Shifting Barline: Metric Displacement and Formal Process in the Trios with Wind Instruments," (2) labels the themes X and X1 because they are based on similar motivic material, which features a shifted barline to beat two of the measure. Smith shows that the barline is shifted to beat two of the X and X1 themes until the final presentation of the X theme in m. 220; all other sections reflect the notated barline. This creates an alternation between sections of the shifted and notated barlines. For example, in the first refrain, the X theme is shifted (mm. 1-16), the Y theme is aligned (mm. 16-20), the X1 Theme is shifted (mm. 21-29), the B theme is aligned (mm. 29-56), the Y theme is also aligned (mm. 56-60), and the final X1 theme of the first refrain is shifted (mm. 61-76). (2) Example 1 shows a full diagram of the movement with the * denoting sections that feature a shifted barline.

Example 1

Brahms Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 mvt. 1

While the shifted barline helps recognize the form of the work, it also creates a sense of tension within the music by blurring the aural perception of the barline.

To demonstrate how this occurs, let's take a look at the first sixteen measures of the X theme. This theme is recognized by a neighbor tone motive that can be seen in Example 2.

Example 2 mm.1-8

Right away the X theme creates the illusion that the barline has shifted to beat two of the measure (mm.e-8) with a quarter note pickup into measure one of the violin part. The shifted barline is confirmed with strong chordal features in the piano part on beat two from mm. 1-16 (Example 3).

Example 3 mm. 1-8

While Brahms has displayed a prominent shifted barline for the X theme in the first eight measures of the motive, it quickly becomes ambiguous at measure 8 with the second repetition of the motive. In this version of the X theme, the horn enters with the same melody that was previously played by the violin. While the horn and the piano are still leading toward beat two of the measure, the violin has an eighth note pickup into beat one of measure 9. The eighth note pickup in the violin creates a sense of tension between the three instruments because there becomes an emphasis on beat one in the violin, as opposed to the emphasis on beat two that is heard in the horn and piano parts. This process continues throughout the movement for both the X and X1 themes.

It was my hypothesis that I could bring a unique interpretation to this piece that more accurately reflected Brahms's intention of form by emphasizing the second beat in the X and X1 themes. This hypothesis; however, was disproven and I found that leading to the second beat caused the structure to become vertical and the flow to become disrupted. This resulted in a gradual deceleration of the tempo as the movement progressed. While Brahms may have deliberately created a sense of tension in the form through the use of a shifted barline, emphasizing this in performance will cause the structure to impede the forward progress of the movement. Simply recognizing this fact will make performance easier; however, here are some additional ideas on how to counterct the challenges brought on by the shifting barline.

One way to propel the movement forward is by choosing a shape for the front of the note that provides clarity and forward motion. The front of each note should have enough precision and intensity to ensure that the note resonates and speaks forward. It is easy for the performer to wait for the notated downbeat, which will cause the articulation to become broader and the music will gradually become slower and more stagnant as the movement progresses. The pianist should also consider using the chords on beat two from mm. 1-16 to drive the phrase forward.

It is also helpful to remember that the horn, violin, and piano come from vastly different families of instruments. These contrasting families of instruments respond and create sound differently and, unfortunately, wind instruments have a tendency to respond later than the violin and piano. As a horn player, I find it helpful to envision the hammer striking the string of a piano. Imitating the action of the piano will allow you to line up the front of your notes with the other two instruments.

In addition to the unique instrumentation of this piece, Brahms had anticipated that it would be performed on the natural horn. I recommend replicating the air speed and color of this instrument by practicing the X theme with the natural horn technique. This can be done by playing the entire passage on the first valve of the F horn, which creates an E[flat] natural horn. This technique will be especially helpful for replicating the chromatic nature of the open and closed notes in the neighbor tone motive. Using the natural horn technique will give you a sense of the weight and color that Brahms had initially intended, as well as drive the air forward by drawing your attention to the sound coming out of the bell.

Careful consideration of the tempo can also reinforce the flow of the movement. I have heard several different recordings of this piece with various performance tempos ranging from quarter note equals 62 to quarter note equals 80. While the tempo marking for this movement is Andante, you may want to consider a quicker tempo, considering that the first episode is marked "poco piu animato" (a little bit faster). The best way to establish an effective tempo for this movement is to simply walk down the street while singing the X theme. This approach works because of the historical context of this piece, which was reputedly conceived while Brahms was walking in the Black Forest. A slightly quicker Andante tempo will also deemphasize beat two, which will counter balance the effect of the shifting barline.

While the shifting barline in the first movement was deliberately used by Brahms to add rhythmic interest, it can also make a performance of this masterpiece somewhat challenging. There will always be a sense of rhythmic conflict; however, if the listener notices that conflict, it should be heard as uniquely interesting.

Hopefully this article will help inform your next performance of the Brahms Trio. Enjoy the journey of performing this monumental work!

Ashley Gulbranson is a DMA student at the University of Colorado Boulder studying horn performance and pedagogy. Ashley teaches brass chamber music at Interlochen Arts Camp and has served as a horn studio graduate teaching assistant at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


(1) Frisch, Walter, "The Shifting Barline: Metrical Displacement in Brahms," in Brahms Studies: Analytical and Historical Perspectives, ed. George S. Bozarth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 142-143.

(2) Smith, Peter H., "Five: Brahms and the Shifting Barline: Metric Displacement and Formal Process in the Trios with Wind Instruments," Brahms Studies, 2001, 198-199.
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Author:Gulbranson, Ashley
Publication:The Horn Call
Date:May 1, 2018
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