Posts tagged ‘brahms’

July 14, 2014

And then There’s Brahms

What is it about some music that holds our attention and continues to move us, while other music charms us for a while but then loses its allure? I’m speaking not just of heard music but of music we play ourselves, or try to.

I’ve taken up dozens of compositions with the full intention of doing justice to each before moving on to anything else. In all but a handful of cases I’ve put them aside. I play for my own pleasure, not to make a living or because music is my profession. If I begin a novel I generally finish it. There are good reasons for not finishing a novel. Lack of discipline is not one. I’ve completed more than a dozen novels plus scores of short stories and all manner of non-fiction. When it comes to music, I feel I can afford to be choosy, fickle, even undisciplined.

But I’m becoming convinced there’s something besides self-indulgence that determines whether I stay with a new piece or put it aside after a couple weeks. Whatever that something is, it has nothing to do with an individual composition’s difficulty. I’ve labored over a simple menuet by Krebs or Pachelbel and breezed through a technically more difficult waltz of Chopin. There’s a Beethoven sonatina I’ve been hammering away at forever. I’ve invested too much time and effort to set it aside entirely, but I’m not motivated enough to put in the time required to make it my own.

Why? Because, I think, it doesn’t speak to me as other music does. It doesn’t resonate in a way that makes it infinitely repeatable. To put things simply, I just don’t care about that sonatina enough. A few years back I did care a great deal about almost anything by Chopin I could manhandle. I intended to learn all his music I could. After a while, though, his moods began to cloy: too much adolescent angst, too much of the same tale of death and unrequited love. I continue to play the bit I did learn of him, and I still listen to Yulianna Avdeeva’s Chopin with great pleasure. But all I do at the keyboard is maintain a familiarity with the waltz in A minor and the first part of a polonaise I learned by heart when that composer still absorbed most of my attention.

And then there’s Brahms.

Brahms and I have had an on-again off-again relationship over the years. I mean before I ever attempted to play anything he wrote. I loved his symphonies and concertos but never ventured much beyond them, certainly not into his solo piano music. As time passed, I listened less and less to Brahms and more and more to later composers like Poulenc, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev. But then I would hear a rendition of the slow movement from one of his concertos and be drawn back into his orbit. I also admired him for sticking to what I saw as his traditional tack despite the gales of Wagner blowing in the opposite direction. I applauded him for having the guts to be old-fashioned.

Brahms in 1853

Brahms in 1853

I no longer think of him as old-fashioned. His music is certainly melodic, but it’s troubled by the same sensibility I recognize as the modern world’s, the one I live in, which seems to have begun sometime in the late 19th century. You see that world in a novel like Perez-Galdos’s Fortunata and Jacinta, in the irreverence of Samuel Butler as well as in the “primitivism” of Le Sacre du Printemps. Brahms is no throw-back to the heyday of long-hair Romanticism. His music is complicated, not like Beethoven’s deeply complex but ultimately resolvable music but complicated with the unresolvable tensions of our modern age: a longing for harmony and order without religious faith, without a confidence in reason or a belief in unrelenting progress that sustained Western civilization before the debacle of 1914.

Brahms was a contemporary of Nietzsche, who coined the phrase “God is dead.” Nietzsche also declared philosophy dead, at least philosophy as it had been practised before him. He said it was just a form of autobiography. His own prescription for the way to move forward, the development of a new, superior kind of human being, may be as naif in its way as the contributions of Kant or Hegel, but his writings have struck a keynote for modern thought that has been re-articulated in each generation that followed.

There is something of the same zeitgeist in Brahms’s music, a despair partially redeemed by beauty and personal love and other simple human virtues. Brahms spent his Sundays conducting small groups of amateur singers, usually women, sometimes from the limb of a tree branch. Music was a way of life for him, not a religion or a soapbox from which to declare a new world order.

His devotion to the Schumanns is well known. But I think its significance for his art is not always understood. Brahms grew up poor, played in whorehouses to make a living in his youth, not unlike some of

the early jazz musicians. He came to know Robert and then Clara Wieck Schumann later. And the Schumanns were loving, generous people. Robert championed the young Chopin, writing reviews that declared the young Pole’s unique genius before the rest of Europe had discovered it. Chopin never returned the favor or, as far as I know, ever acknowledged it. But Schumann did not offer praise in the hope of reciprocation.

Clara Schumann in 1878

Clara Schumann in 1878

Unlike the general run of artists, he was not jealous of every other composer’s success. Music was the thing and, perhaps, like Jorge Luis Borges, he believed all musicians like all writers are really the same musician or the same writer.

Brahms’s love for Clara Schumann is as legendary as the theory, perhaps true, that they both still loved Robert so much after his early death following years of what today we call mental illness that they were unable to become lovers themselves, choosing instead to remain devoted friends. That kind of deep loyalty and personal devotion is rare in the great, though not so among the ordinary run of humans. We almost expect our famous artists and politicians to be self-serving bastards. When we find magnanimity in a Schumann or a Chekhov, another contemporary of Brahms, we treasure it.

I also like Brahms’s music because it’s the work of a grown-up. I find it hard to define what I mean by “grown-up,” but, like the man who didn’t know much about art but knew what he liked, I think I can recognize it. If nothing else, maturity means seeing the complexity of human existence and accepting it. Fanatics never grow up. They always see things one way. So do some artists. They sound a theme early on and work it unchanged for their entire career, sometimes to great success. Or, if they’re lucky, they die young and never reveal their stunted sensibility.

I spoke earlier of the adolescent quality of Chopin’s music. But his obsession with the violent and exaggerated emotions of youth yielded such great music there’s no point to caviling that he didn’t write anything of a different nature. It would be like denying Mozart his place in the musical pantheon because he didn’t produce in his thirties the music he would have written in his fifties had he lived.

Brahms did have that advantage — longevity. The piece I’ve been learning, the Sarabande in A Minor, is one of his last compositions. But I hear a maturing Brahms throughout his career. He incorporates what came before (listen to the fugal elements in the second sarabande in that two-composition set) but does so in a modern way that makes it seem natural to the music rather than just an homage, as is the case so often with “modern” composers who like to show off their knowledge of earlier musical forms without giving them any new meaning.

The Sarabande in A Minor is an elusive piece. Technically it’s not difficult. It’s the musical notation, especially the staccato markings in the first theme, that have had me lying awake at night (and first thing in the morning too) trying to make sense of them as I “played” the piece over and over in my head. Why staccato? Why staccato and forte at the end of that first theme? It seemed a hell of a way to write a “stately 3/4 time,” as one definition of sarabande has it.

Brahms in midcareer

Brahms in midcareer

But, that’s what I mean about Brahms using old musical forms in a modern way with a modern sensibility. This is a sarabande of a different sort, just as Beethoven’s 8th symphony is a kind of musical joke, as the conductor Lukas Foss once told an audience I was part of, but a very different kind of “joke” indeed. And Foss’s performance that night, one I’ve never heard duplicated, proved it true.

There is a temptation to violate the musical notation of the sarabande and play some of those staccato notes as eighth or even quarter notes. One of the videos by a professional on YouTube actually does so, and more, drawing out the final staccato note as if it were a whole note and then for good measure playing it piano even though the bar is marked forte. Another professional plays the staccato notes as written but without any musical feeling as if it were just a finger exercise or he had no clue to what the piece is about.

My point is that even in an apparently unambitious piece like this Brahms has created a work of art that is anything but uninteresting. He seems to be challenging the musical form as well as the performer to a kind of musical game of hide-and-seek. What am I up to? the music seems to say. Can you find out? Ready or not.

I decided after weeks of playing this sarabande that the “stately dance in 3/4 time” is essential information to understanding it. Without that underlying rhythm, however subtle, there is no sustaining infrastructure and hence no satisfying performance of the piece. As well, one must take the notation as it is written, not change it willy-nilly as that pianist on YouTube did. The proper way to perform Ravel’s La Valse is neither to deny its schmaltzy Straussian figures nor its sarcastic but tragic use of them. Both the Brahms sarabande and Ravel’s tone poem are of their time and retrospective. The older motifs are there for a purpose, not as mere regurgitations of an earlier musical form.

The rendering I’ve made available here at the risk of being pitied for my pianistic ineptness hopefully expresses something of the richness that is in this short piece. Please keep in mind I’m still very much a novice and self-taught. An alternative rendering I also recorded is less flawed but less expressive. This one is played on a 1922 Erard piano — actually a digital recreation of that Erard, recreated not by sampling but on the fly with remarkable software developed by a French company called Pianoteq. It was the sound of the Erard, more astringent than the Steinway on which I played the more correct version, that seemed to lead me into a deeper understanding of the music. The Erard seemed to blend so naturally with the content of the music, I seemed to be able to play the piece for the first time the way I had heard it previously only in my head. Tell me if you think I’ve managed to capture any of that richness in this recording.