Brahms at the Piano

Sonic archeology: An analysis and transcription of the 1889 cylinder recording of Johannes Brahms performance of a segment of his First Hungarian Dance.

Jonathan Berger (CCRMA, Stanford University)


On December 2nd 1889, Theo Wangemann, a representative of Thomas Edison recorded Johannes Brahms performing two segments of music at the piano. The works recorded included part of a paraphrase of Strauss' Libelle, preceded by measures 13-72 of Brahms' 1872 arrangement of the first Hungarian Dance for solo piano.
While this unique historical document should have been hailed as an important 'window' to the world of nineteenth century music performance practices, the musical information was almost entirely masked by noise. The recording was,  in fact, so noisy that musicologist Gregor Benko wrote that, "any musical value heard [in the cylinder recording] can be charitably described as the product of a pathological imagination."
Indeed, despite various attempts at filtering and enhancing the recording, the poor quality of the cylinder recording resulted in a general concensus that the recording was of no significant musicological value.
Using an innovative approach to audio signal analysis (see Berger, Coifman and Goldberg, 1994) PhD candidate Charles Nichols and I were able to transcribe the music by painstakingly removing layers of noise to reveal the music embedded within.
Transcription was followed by careful analysis of the numerous performance nuances, agogic inflections, improvised segments and added elaborations.

Who was speaking?

The spoken text at the start of the cylinder recording has been wrongly attributed as belonging to Brahms. Numerous writers, scholars and amateurs alike, have presumed that Brahms introduces himself with the words "I am Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms". However a humber of factors raise serious doubts as to who is speaking. The only mention of the recording by someone who was present (in the published memoires of Fellinger's son) states that Brahms was introduced. Considering the time between the announcement and the start of the music it seems improbable that the same person could segue from speech to playing so quickly particularly given the technological limitations.
The denoised excerpts reveals enough of the speech to suggest that the speaker (probably Wangemann) introduces Brahms as follows:

"...Dezember Achtzehnhundertachtundneunzig. Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, bei mir ist
Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms".

("...December Eighteen Hundred Eighty Nine. House of Mr. Fellinger, with me is
Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms.")

(acknowledgements to Guido Behnke for his assistance in transcribing the text)

Performance Analysis

In reconstructing the performance we measured and compared
various temporal aspects of Brahms' playing. Since the dance
uses a limited number of rhythmic patterns we subdivided the
data according to rhythmic types. The most recurrent of these
is the dotted-quarter/eighth-note measure unit. There are sixteen
recurrences of this unit in four consecutive six-measure phrases.
Each of these phrases culminates with a half note accompanied
by arpeggiation.

The second section of the recorded segment of the dance is
charaterized by two four-measure phrases of sequential upper-
neighbor melodic patterns in three groups of sixteenth-note,
sixteenth-note, eighth-note separated by a measure of eigth-note, quarter-note, eighth-note. This section is cadenced by a two measure sixteenth-note sequence of descending conjunct tetrachords followed  by a sixteenth-note pattern terminated with [eighth-note, sixteenth-note, sixteenth-note,quarter-note. The score repeats the last phrase with the neighbor note embellishment replaced by octave skips and a sextuplet arpeggio replacing the sixteenth-note sequence.

For reasons not immediately obvious, Brahms commenced the recording of the 'Ungarische Tanz' segment on the consequent of the first phrase, thus starting on a V9  harmony. The phrase structure and harmonic rhythmof measures 1-12 is:
    [(((2 + 2) --     2)  -- (2 (1+        1)  +  2))]
        i   vii7 V    i        i  V7/III   V7/iv  iv

Brahms performance commences at measure 13, continuing the six measure phrases as follows:
    [(((2 + 2) --     2)  -- (2 (1+  1)  +  2))]
        V9  ii4 ii6    V      ii6  V  V7       i
Measures 25-48 continue the 6+6 phrase structure.
The second section of the piece is subphrased into four-measure groups preserving the twelve meashre phrse structure as (4+4+4) rathern than (6+6). Although the recording ends at this point, the score follows with a transition of one (4+4+4) phrase followed by one (6+6) phrase that leads into a recapitulation of the opening section.
While the overall durations of the three large phrase groups that incorporate the dotted-quarter-eighth-note units (mm 13-24,25-36 and 37-48) do not differ radically, the internal lengths and proportions of each measure unit is remarkably variable. Measures 13-24 have an overall duration of 10.82 seconds, measures 25-36 are 9.28 seconds, and measures 37-48 9.86 seconds. Measure lengths range from .69 seconds (m 21) to .93 seconds (m 33).
The most outstanding preformance feature of this section is Brahms' tendency towards 'underdotting'. The eighth note exceeds the duration of its preceding dotted-quarter in measures 14 and 19, and is approximately equal in duration in measures 20, 34 and 40. The dotted-quarter is given its full durational value only once in measure 38.
The other distinctive performance practice is Brahms' elongation of the middle quarter note of the amphibrach figures of the second section (measures 49-68).
In addition to the agogic features of Brahms' performance there are a number of instances where Brahms departs from the score, both by melodic insertion or alteration, and by modification of the phrase structure to facilitate closure at a nonterminal musical point.
Complete details of the analysis are available in our 1996 publication in Leonardo,  and in our paper from ICMC94 .

Historical context: In 1889...  

Hollerith invented a method of storing data on punch cards.

Vincent Van Gough spends much of the year hospitalized contemplating his suicide of 1890.

The Eifel Tower opened.

Oklahoma was considered 'uninhabited' and opened to white settlers in the 'Land Grab'.

Jack the Ripper had yet to murder anybody (he does however the following year).

The invention of the electric chair settles the competition between Edison and Westinghouse regarding the American standard of electricity by using
Westinghouse's alternating current. To be put to death on the electric chair was called to be 'Westinghoused'.

Sound examples from the Brahms restoration project:

Bose acetate transfer of original 1889 wax cylinder recording:  

example 1 (wav)

Examples of LCT denoising:

example 2 (wav)

example 3 (wav)

example 4 (wav)

example 5 (wav)

denoised with overlaid synthesis
to emphasize improvisation


This data was used to reconstruct the entire, original four hand version of the piece in MIDI format playable on an acoustic reproducing piano such as the Disklavier.

Although the recording technology lacked the sensitivity to derive dynamics or pedal markings, the timings suggested distinct performance trends that used to create a good approximation of how Brahms would have played the piece.

The reconstructed performance along with the original transcription segments and a performance
of the original four-hand version of the piece as if performed by Brahms playing with himself will
be released on CDRom by the Yamaha Corporation in 2003.